Tag Archives: Peace Corps

Peace Corps Never “Wraps Up”

27 Mar OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Holy Research Batman! or Peace Corps Master’s International

30 Oct

For two years I researched, wrote, procrastinated, researched, procrastinated, wrote, procrastinated, and finally submitted my thesis. But wait, what? I’m in the Peace Corps- they make you write theses now? Not exactly.

I am a Peace Corps Master’s International candidate. About a decade ago, Peace Corps and graduate schools started to pair up to create Master’s programs that put you in the field, were grassroots practical, and popped you out with more than two years of international service. More than three years ago (oh my God) I started the PCMI program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in the International Development Program (MA).

Each school and program is different, and for my program I finished up all my coursework before I began my 27 months and had the two years to write and submit a “substantial research paper” preferably about my country of service. I came in to Ethiopia with two other MI students – one from John’s Hopkins (Masters of Public Health) and the other from the University of Montana (Masters of Youth Development). They both had different versions of MA integration – for JHU, she basically finished her degree, wrote a thesis on something completely random (but very interesting I’m sure) and then started Peace Corps. For UMontana, she had to actually develop and implement a project proposal during her service. I was somewhere in the middle – typical thesis, but sorta, kinda attached to my service.

There are two ways a Peace Corps service can help with a graduate degree – the MI program is one way, where you study, and then are placed to serve being able to test out that theoretical knowledge and practical grad degree skills on the ground. The other way is the Paul D Coverdell Fellows program , which if your school signs up, gives anyone who has completed Peace Corps some sort of break (from as little as waiving the application fee to as awesome as a full ride – depending on the program).  The Coverdell Fellows aid is good for life, so for the RPCVs a few years out you can still access that support. The University of Denver hosts the most fellows of any graduate school, and I had some colleagues who finished their service over 15 years ago.

Personally, the MI program ended up saving me about half of my expenses. It covered 18 out of 90 credits, but because I was able to overload some quarters, I finished in half the time saving me rent and living expenses as well (though probably took a small toll on my sanity). Most of the MI students in my Korbel cohort finished in 1.5 years, a more normal pace.

So what did I ultimately research, write and procrastinate about?

The title of my thesis is…

THE COMBINATION OF MASS MEDIA AND PEER EDUCATION IN ETHIOPIAN SOCIAL BEHAVIOR CHANGE PROGRAMS FOR HEALTH AND GENDER ISSUES

Mmmm Sexy and Academic.

Basically, in 50 pages I outline that behavior change programs (in America think public health campaigns like anti-smoking) in Ethiopia (think condom use or women are equal) work best when mass media (which provides a larger national conversation and a context) is used concurrently with small group peer education sessions (which create personal accountability and can move groups from informed to action). Was that run-on sentence long enough for you?

Social behavior change programming has held a fascination for me since it is the cross section of communications and development. And let me nerd out here for a minute, I have been able to be at the grassroots implementation level for many a prevention program and topic over the past two years. I have had a front seat to see what works well, what works, and what does not work. While I am a little grassrooted out right now (I would love a hot shower), I plan to take these lessons with me into my career.

Clearly I just can’t do one thing. This has been a curse since high school. AP classes? That’s for sissies, IB for me. Undergrad? Why not get two Bacherlor’s degrees? Grad school? I should probably work full time too. And Peace Corps? Let’s write a thesis while we live in sub-Saharan Africa, that sounds fun.

So there you have it, between hugging groups of African children, watching too much Battlestar Galactica, and the occasional international trip, I finished my Master’s Degree. Now someone please hire me.

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.

A Partnership Project

5 Aug

So my friend Sally from Bonga down south, has started a fundraising campaign for a project that involves Gondar. It’s basically a training program for environmental tourism. I’m a co-signer on the grant and have helped her with contacts in Gondar and the Simiens. Please send it along if you want/and donate at the link.

Bonga, Kafa Zone, Ethiopia

Bonga, Kafa Zone, Ethiopia

Here is her/my project:
Hello friends! I send my best regards and hope that you are well. I am
writing to ask for your help and support. I need to raise funds for a
sustainable development project as part of my Peace Corps service.
Please find details below, and the link to my project here:
https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=14-663-028

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to
everything else in the universe.” -John Muir

We are one world. Try as we might to preserve one little corner of it
– a national park here, a bird sanctuary there – that effort is lost
without thousands of similar efforts far away from us; we are all
connected. Many of us who work in environment-related careers remember
a formative experience as an intern or volunteer, learning both love
of nature and the skills to communicate that love to others. This
project intends to provide such a formative experience to promising
young environmental leaders in Ethiopia, by sending interns from the
newly formed Makira Tour Guides Association in Bonga to  learn with a
more established tour guide operation in northern Ethiopia.

Bonga is a developing town of around thirty thousand in the southwest
administrative zone of Kafa. Nestled in breathtakingly beautiful cloud
forests, Kafa Zone was recently declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
This designation recognizes Kafa’s complex ecosystems supporting
natural coffee and abundant wildlife; it also aims to provide means
for sustainable development and poverty alleviation for Kafa’s one
million inhabitants. As the population here grows, there is more
demand on forest resources; work is being done to promote sustainable
use of these resources, as well as to introduce alternative
livelihoods such as ecotourism. Well over a hundred thousand hectares
of forest here preserve millions of tons of carbon dioxide, besides
supporting unique biodiversity and a landscape known as the
“Birthplace of Coffee.”

Members of the Makira Tour Guides Association here were trained two
years ago through a project run by Naturschuzbund Deutschland and the
Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society. However, while these
and other organizations have been working hard to promote Kafa as a
tourist destination, the new guides have not had much practice. A
refresher training I ran this year as a Peace Corps Volunteer shows a
group of eager, but untried guides, with little knowledge of how to
structure a tour, provide for customer needs and comfort, or market
their product to the world. By contrast, Simien Mountains National
Park in Ethiopia’s north has been welcoming tourists for decades. The
leader of Simien Trek Tour Company (www.simientrek.com), Shiferaw
Asrat, has an easy command of the tools of his trade. He has agreed to
accept two representatives of Makira TGA to intern with him for four
weeks, observing and apprenticing with him, then drafting their own
two-year plan to bring back to their association in Bonga.

So many fundraising efforts by charity organizations in the developing
world involve acquiring stuff: food, construction materials, water
filters, medicines, supplies. This effort aims to spend money on
building capacity, by forging connections between Ethiopians
themselves. It is a relatively small investment – the total I need to
raise is under $2000. But this small amount could get this business
off the ground and help these rising leaders to benefit their local
community in a sustainable way.

Thank you for all that you do for the environment and the development
of our world.

Camp GLOW Gondar 2014

2 Aug

Some photos from my second Camp GLOW and Gondar’s 6th Annual. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a worldwide Peace Corps program. Gondar, Ethiopia was the first Camp GLOW in Ethiopia and continues to be the longest running thanks to hard working volunteers in the region. This year we had five themed days: Gender, Education, Environment, Health, and Leadership, with lifeskills, volunteerism and just general awesomeness making their appearance. Here are some photos from the week.

 

Some Goal 2 - teaching the girls how to throw an American football

Some Goal 2 – teaching the girls how to throw an American football

morning sport

morning sport

Girls Bill of Rights. From the girls themselves

Girls Bill of Rights. From the girls themselves

Strong women gallery walk

Strong women gallery walk

Learning about Michelle Obama

Learning about Michelle Obama

Vision boards

Vision boards

Brittany leading an energizer

Brittany leading an energizer

We had guest speakers throughout the week

We had guest speakers throughout the week

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reading her strong woman statement

reading her strong woman statement

breaking the pinata with her "strong woman" statement

breaking the pinata with her “strong woman” statement

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Permagardening

Permagardening

giving nutrients to the soil through charcoal, eggshells, and compost

giving nutrients to the soil through charcoal, eggshells, and compost

fertile ground

fertile ground

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Working in Katie's yard

Working in Katie’s yard

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getting their hands dirty

getting their hands dirty

Vision Boards

Vision Boards

Hyena and Sheep game

Hyena and Sheep game

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Malaria Freeze Tag

Malaria Freeze Tag

I was a mosquito

I was a mosquito

Condom demonstration

Condom demonstration

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RMPs - Reusable Menstrual Pads

RMPs – Reusable Menstrual Pads

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Talent Show- Injibara dance

Talent Show- Injibara dance

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"What is a leader?"

“What is a leader?”

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blind leading the blind...

blind leading the blind…

The group at the Gondar Castles

The group at the Gondar Castles

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