Tag Archives: culture

Nations and Nationalities Day

12 Dec


Last Sunday was the national celebration of diversity in Ethiopia –Nations and Nationalities Day. There are 87 individual languages and as many cultures in Ethiopia. Most of these are tribal languages that you find on the southern border with Kenya where National Geographic worthy communities like the Hammer Tribe live in the Omo Valley.

But even up north in the more homogenous Amhara region, where I live, there a regional differences and a lot of pride. On the west side, Orthodox Christianity reigns supreme, as well as the typical white cotton dresses. Most cities have their own meskel or “cross,” and the Gondar one looks more like a floral diamond.

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses


The other common costume is a forest green outfit with white buttons for men. Typical of both the Gondar region and south of us in the Gojam region (which surrounds Bahar Dar) these outfits are traditionally the fancy fare of farmers.


Amhara has been the seat of power, culture, and ecumenical influence for a significant portion of Ethiopian history. Amhara and Tigray (to the North) are seen as more “traditional” Ethiopia, while the south is more tribal. Tigray boasts Axum, said to hold the Arc of the Covenant, while Amhara has both Gondar and Lalibela for historical and religious clout. Natural beauty also abounds – The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, and the Blue Nile Falls, south of Bahar Dar are breathtaking and unique.

Amhara Flag

Amhara Flag


Tigray has the rock hewn churchs of Hauzen, the columns of Axum, and a desert like landscape. Oromia, the largest region in the center and the political rival for the last century, has the lush Awash National park, Wenchi crater, and a lot more beads on their clothing. The South has the Bale Mountains (featured in BBC’s Life), and the most cultural diversity of the regions. Apparently the shakala tibs (charred meat dish) are best down here too.  Afar and Somali regions are majority Muslim, nomadic and have landscape as tough as the lifestyle. Somalia just had a polio outbreak, and I randomly met up the CDC team as they prepared to head out that way… shmerrr. In Afar, the Danakil Depression is the hottest point on earth with lava literally bubbling out of the ground. We can’t visit it as volunteers, but it’s definitely on my list for afterwards!

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Addis Ababa, Dire Dowa, and  Harar boast their own city principalities, and per my previous post, Harar has an interesting and unique twist to its history.

Other regions in our “no-go zone” include Gambella and BG, on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. I don’t know much about them, besides the refugee camps, but I heard they have giraffes! There is definitely an elephant sanctuary out by Jijiga in the East.

So there’s a quick and dirty run down of the some of the cultural and natural diversity in Ethiopia in honor of Nations and Nationalities Day.


An Ode to American Toilet Paper

15 Sep

WARNING – this post is rifled with too much information on bathroom habits, and just a little bit about culture. Proceed with caution if you have a weak stomach, or at any point you ever thought I was attractive.

First, do NOT send me toilet paper. I can buy a roll here for the equivalent of 50 cents at any suk on the side of the road, and that space would be much better served housing a chocolate bar. BUT, when one of my friends left for America after finishing up her research here last week she dropped off a bag of goodies – Clorox wipes, a few shirts, some olive oil, and… American toilet paper.

Oh the joys of double ply quilted. I always knew ye, but I had forgotten. When I got a cold last week, you were there, not chaffing my nose. When I had “the gas” that injera eaters know all too well you were a comfort. When I reveal too much information about anything body related on my blog, you will still be there, soft and … well, soft.

Ironically, toilet paper here is called “soft.” It’s not. But, like I said I can get a roll for the equivalent of 50 cents… you get what you pay for.

Toilet paper is funny. To an American, the first thing I would update in a home would be the bathroom, or kitchen. To an Ethiopian, the first thing they would update is the main room or bedroom. I have been to so many houses with mud walls, rat holes, and a tarp ceiling, with a giant maple cabinet that holds their china dishware. I don’t get it. I would have put in a toilet, or a water heater, or a propane stove.

But, toilet paper is the metaphor for priorities – most Ethiopians don’t use it anyway, and they probably think I’m super gross for not using water… though a little water, tp combo does the trick. I really think it’s a North American thing. I’ve used squat latrines in Italy for pete’s sake.

The point is, small pleasures are so worth it. And I’m pretty sure an American grocery store is going to blow my mind when I get back. Multiple brands of toilet paper?? That I can buy in bulk?? Don’t even take me to the toothpaste aisle.

So for now I’ll use the roll Kristin left for me. And when it runs out, I’ll go back to “soft.” But the few weeks I could mooch off Morgan’s hot shower when she was homeless (rats… don’t ask… or do) was heavenly, and I only wanted to die a little bit taking that first cold shower again.

These are never the reasons people have a hard time. I’ll take power outages, pit latrines, and water scarcity over harassment any day. But that small feeling of home, reminds me I’m not living here forever… and I think I’m ok with that (sorry Peace Corps).

Maybe when I go back, I’ll appreciate the toilet paper (read everything) a little bit more.




Market Anecdotes

9 Jan

The way the airport is the best people watching place in America, the market on market day is the most authentic place to dive deep into community culture here in Ethiopia. A hustling, bustling, chaotic, crazy mess, many volunteers shy away from market days. I kind of love them. Yes I get a lot of attention, but at the same time, most people just want to conduct their business, get the best deal and crack a few jokes. Especially surprising people by using Amharic (even if it is only tinish tinish “a little bit”) is one my favorite moments.

Sorry for the lack of photos on this one- I don’t like taking my camera out in this area (duh). But a few anecdotes will help explain this Saturday ritual.

1)      The bus station is in the middle of the market, and only the bravest of tourists attempt to enter Gondar this way (the usual way being the airport at the other end of town- for those interested in coming!). My good friend Morgan comes in often from her small village a couple hours away to do her banking, pick up food not available at her market and get a pizza every once in a while. She usually loads up with stuff before heading back. Being white, the bus boys naturally assume we are headed to Bahar Dar (a resort town a couple hours away). When she says the name of her tiny town and I say I live here and am just helping (all in Amharic), I’ve never seen so many confused looks in my life.

2)      Similarly, a few days ago I bought 2 giant plastic buckets to hold my vegetables/dirty dishes/wash my clothes in. An Ethiopian tour guide was leading a group of tourists down the road, took a double look at my buckets and said “You’re not in my group—you live here!” Like it was a great discovery. Clearly, because all tourists buy cheap plastic buckets. They make great souvenirs.

3)      Walking to the market the other day I ran into one of the few mentally ill people in town. Small pause- this is actually a sad problem here. Many mentally ill people are left to fend for themselves on the streets because there are no free/public mental institutions and their families do not have the money to support them. Anyway, one such man passed me and pinched me on the arm, not very hard, but it took me by surprise. I told him it was rude, and he started to walk behind me rattling a water bottle. But what makes this better were the people who came to my aid and led him away. For as much harassment as I receive there is an equal amount of looking out for me.

4)      Berbere is the spicy powder used in almost every Ethiopian dish, and it is made from dried peppers and a myriad of other things. Getting turned around in the market the other day I ended up wandering down “berbere lane,” basically the section where all the berbere is made and sold. With kariya (dried pepper) dust floating into my eye, I was weeping as I walked down the road. And by weeping I mean, snot nosed, puffy eyed, crawling on my knees in confusion of how to get away from the poisonous dust that was choking me. Ok it wasn’t that bad, but I did get a whole lot more “izosh!es” (stay strong girl!) from the women as I made my way out of that section.

5)      Less of a market story, but “market related.” One New Year’s Eve a few of us volunteers went out to dinner at one of the nicer hotels in the area as a treat. This was a nice restaurant, good service, a beautiful view and even a prix fix menu. The choice for dessert was a chocolate cake or seasonal fruit. One volunteer chose the fruit… and was brought a banana. On a plate. Clearly it’s dry season. But who doesn’t choose chocolate cake? He brought that one on himself.

6)      Speaking of bananas, they are everywhere. Every stand, souk, and lady with a tarp on the ground is selling them. Therefore, there a lot of banana peels in the road… you can guess where I am heading with this. I literally Charlie Chaplin/3 Stooges/Mario Kart/My Usual Self style slipped on a banana peel in the middle of the market. I kid you not. Lucky for me, slapstick comedy is very popular here and I’m glad the Ethiopians who saw this thoroughly appreciated the humour.

So these are just a few weeks of notes and stories. I try to carry my notebook around with me to write down the funny moments of the day because the only way to live cross culturally is to hold your head up high and laugh with the punches (and sometimes pinches) that come along.

Habesha Time

22 Dec

In the rest of the world it is December 22, 2012, or maybe it isn’t if the Mayan rumors are true. But how is this blog post possible if everyone else perished in a fiery end of Armageddon proportions?  Answer: the magical Ethiopian Calendar.

For me, today is December 11, 2005. Yes, I am writing to you both from the future (time differences!) and from the past (sorta). Basically I have about 7 more years before the Mayan doom- so tell me, what happened that fateful day?

In all seriousness, the Ethiopian time system is one of the most interesting I’ve come across. It is a derivative of the Julian calendar, whereas the ferenji or “foreign aka American” calendar is the Gregorian system. The difference of about 7 or 8 years comes about due to a difference in calculation, by the Coptic Church, of when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was pregnant with Jesus. Why couldn’t they keep proper records back then?

In addition to the year differences, there are 13 months in the Ethiopian Calendar. This is convenient for tourism as Ethiopia can truthfully claim 13 months of sunshine. There are 12 months of 30 days each and a 13th month of 5 or 6 days called Pagume [Pa-gu-may] which is stuck in there to make the other 12 work on the yearly cycle (the whole earth going around the sun thing). What that means is that the Ethiopian New Year falls on September 11th, (Sept. 12th in a leap year), just after rainy season.

If that weren’t complicated enough, the time is different here too. Although now that I’m used to it, it makes so much more sense. 6am or sunrise is the start of the day (0:00), noon (6:00), 6pm (12:00) and the night time starts over. So basically from 0-12 hours is from sunrise to sunset and the night is another 12 hours. Facepalm. What is this weird 4am in the morning thing Americans got going on? Nonsensical. Of course, this system works well for a country where sunrise and sunset are pretty much consistent throughout the year since we are close to the equator.

What this ultimately means is that every time I schedule a meeting we have to clarify bahabesha or bafereji sa-at? Meaning Ethiopian or foreign calendar/time? If that confusion isn’t a good excuse for missing deadline, I don’t know what is. So I keep my watch on Ethiopian time, and my cell phone on foreign time, just in case I need to switch back and forth. A lot of international NGOs and organizations work on the foreign clock system, while the local orgs clearly use the local time. If someone brought in the 24:00 European/military system right now I would explode.

Moral of the story is, send me your World Series winners  and lottery numbers from 2006-2012, I think I could make some good bets.

Gobez Food Combinations

16 Nov

There are few food items here that are the most genius, clever, delicious combinations of tastes I have ever seen. Recipes and habits I will most definitely be bringing back to America, and cannot believe do not already exist there outside Ethiopian restaurants are as follows:

LowzShay- Peanut Butter Tea

Yes. You read that correctly. There is a tea with peanut butter in it that tastes exactly as you would imagine. Like melted peanut butter with tea. It is one of the most delicious concoctions ever invented and I don’t understand why Starbucks has not picked up on this yet.

Oatmeal Goop

I don’t know what this one is called, but it basically like cinnamon oatmeal in a drink form. It tastes like Christmas. It’s some sort of oat flour tea mix that is thick but you drink it from a mug. Did I mention it tastes like Christmas. Seriously, Starbucks, get on it.

Kaysir Wot- Beet stew

I don’t know if you’ve caught on yet, but the majority of food in Ethiopia is some kind of soupy, mushy liquid food. This is not a bad thing. Especially when you have beets, potatoes, garlic and spices all together in a heavenly mix. I’ll even give props to the berbere here (the infamous spicy almost curry-like spice mix used in basically every single Ethiopian dish ever).

Chocola Tibs- Roast Meat (usually ox)

This dish is literally a bunch of small bite sized bits of red meat charred to a crisp over charcoal. Let every man rejoice. It is served over a hot charcoal plate, sometimes with spicy peppers and tomatoes, and you eat it with injera and dip it in berbere powder (duh).

Tagabino- basically spicy humus

Tagabino is made from chickpeas and … you guessed it berbere. With onions, peppers, garlic and tomatoes, we have all the staple foods here covered. It is cooked down to an almost playdough like texture and basically tastes like spicy humus. It’s awesome, not least because it isn’t as soupy as most wots. Plus it’s vegetarian so you can get it on Wednesdays and Fridays when there is no meat for the Orthodox fasting days.

Special Ful- Mashed Beans

This dish is a crossover from the Arabian Peninsula, but with an Ethiopian (read berbere) flair. It is basically garbanzo beans mashed with onions and garlic. But what makes it special you ask? It comes with scrambled eggs (and berbere) and sometimes even avocado! Plus it’s served with a baguette type bread, which is a nice break from injera.

Mar- Honey

Ya calm down- we have honey in America. But this is the real deal. It comes in huge vats and you buy it at the marketplace with the bees and honeycomb still floating in it and everything. Just a little protein, no worries! It is unfiltered and straight from the hives meaning it is thick and delicious. I will never eat honey that I can see through again. Worms, shmerms.

Somehow with all of this goodness I am dropping weight here. My worries of a carb filled diet were pretty accurate, but everything is so natural and the combination of new foods, stress, and probably a lot more walking have meant I’m slimming down a bit. Chiger yellum! (No problem!)

Nooks and Crannies

13 Nov

This update is going to sound like an advertisement for Thomas’s English muffins. And maybe this is because about 70% of my thoughts are about food, but I promise there is a point, bear with me.

This past week I visited the town that will be my work site and home for the next two years. So I went in with a “you will like it or die trying” attitude. I think the mantra helped.

My site, Dessie, is large town of about 200,000 nestled between/on/in/around/under/through Mount Tossa (thyme in Amharic). They say it was designed by a blind man if that gives you any clue to how very nestled we are. The walk up to my house from my work is literally a 45 degree angle hike up a mountain. I highly doubt Peace Corps will be able to get a car up there with my luggage… I will be the fittest volunteer in Ethiopia. The pro to this, besides the exercise, is that nobody would bother walking up that way unless they lived there so I won’t have any strangers hanging around. And of course the view. I live above the clouds.

The eight hour drive from Addis Ababa to Dessie is breathtaking. A road through flatlands, mountains, valleys, cliffs, and farms, the only way I can describe the topography of Ethiopia is as a Thomas’s English muffin. The sheer cliffs and mountains drop so suddenly into valleys and steppes that it literally looks like the pastry’s nooks and crannies. I apologize for the lack of photos in this blog so far, my internet access has always been shorter than I want.

On the road from Addis to Dessie, an attempt to capture the landscape

But this week also produced some other realizations about culture, physical space and my place here that fit oh so nicely into the nooks and crannies theme. Moving into my house and beginning to meet my landlord’s family I started to understand the spaces, both big and small that I would be occupying in the compound and their lives. Right now I am the new exciting thing, but all I want is to be boring and ordinary. I never realized how much we prize privacy in my culture until I had none at all. I take my private moments in fits and starts- on a walk to work, sitting in café, the few minutes before I fall asleep. Squeezing my personal preferences and idiosyncrasies around the already established norm, I will settle into new routines and develop relationships that compromise the halves of a mismatched muffin.

While I am still dipping in and out of cultural nooks and crannies, I will also need to find my place and purpose in work and with my site specific reasons for volunteering here. It was nice to meet my coworkers and possible partners over the next two years, but it is clear I will be in and out of projects and organizations, providing bridges and weaving relationships, navigating the mountains and valleys of the professional bureaucracy.

The view from my office at the Aids Resource Center in Dessie

Finally I need to literally fit in the physical nooks and crannies. Attempting to return to my training site on my own yielded a very harsh lesson in safety and physical space. I already know that I am just about four inches too tall for any bus in Ethiopia. When my knees are hitting my chin, my elbow is behind my head, and there are five people in a seat made for three, a three hour bus ride feels like five. But when this is preceded by fights at the bus station (typical) where I am grabbed and shoved away from boarding (atypical) I do sometimes wish I was 4’2”.

But the best part of an English muffin is the juxtaposition of a crunchy toasted peak next to a buttery pool in the cranny. What makes this experience worth it is both the highs and the lows, the mistakes and the education, to form a more complete delicious whole. I probably could have made the same analogy with the bubbles in injera, but I eat so much of that I wanted to leave it alone for a while.