My Peace Corps Service in Numbers

My Peace Corps service is hard to explain in words, so here it goes in numbers:

  • 26 months of service
  • 700 rolls of injera
  • 6,400 ounces of coffee
  • 1,770 birr spent on tomatoes
  • 1,500+ hours watching TV from my external hard drive
  • 36 books read
  • 50 hot showers (in the span of 3 months)
  • 65 bucket baths (in the span of 23 months)
  • 16,000 minutes waiting on late people and events
  • 190 hours on a bus from Mehal Meda to Addis
  • 2 bus drivers arrested in route
  • 8 buses that broke down
  • 27 people that fit in a 12 passenger van
  • 4 cases of giardia
  • 4 of 9 regions of Ethiopia visited
  • 4 visitors from the US
  • 3 weeks vacation in the US
  • 1 goat in my shint bet (hole in the ground toilet)
  • 2 chickens in my compound at any given moment
  • 0 number of times I used my switch blade for cutting anything other than food
  • 320 phone calls with my mom and dad
  • 11 handmade dollies given to me by friends
  • 5 names I was called in Mehal Meda: Laseley, Lucy, Narsley, Lucy, Leeslee, and occasionally Leslye
  • 6 number of mornings I woke up after 9:00am
  • 3 number of times I used Spanish to communicate in English
  • 2 number of times I sprained my ankle on my rocky compound
  • 3 months of pre-service trainings
  • 7 weeks of in-service trainings
  • 40 English Clubs
  • 200 RUMPs (Reusable Menstrual Pads) made for female students
  • 10 teacher trainings
  • 3 GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camps
  • 4 rocks thrown at me
  • 2 times I was tackled in the street
  • 3 times I cried in the middle of the street
  • 0 times I contemplated going home early
  • 50+ invitations to friends and co-workers houses for meals and coffee
  • 50 primary school students I know by name
  • 5 close Ethiopian friends who are like family
  • 800 whirlwind days that have accumulated to a life changing experience that has made me a better person that I was 26 months ago.

 

My experience with gender inequality in Ethiopia

After 26 months in Ethiopia, there are a handful of things I can expect each and every day.

1. I will engage in a minimum of 5 conversations where I only understand about 70% of what was discussed (and both parties will usually nervously chuckle and nod at the end of the conversation to disguise our mutual cluelessness).
2. I’ll drink at least 16 ounces of coffee.
3. I will gain a new appreciation for the enduring strength of Ethiopian women.

A few months ago, a fellow PCV recently wrote a blog about the difficulties of being a female volunteer in Ethiopia. Her words say it best. http://800daysinethiopia.blogspot.com/2014/03/on-being-hated.html

Being a female PCV is tough, but “tough” doesn’t even being to describe what it’s like to be a female Ethiopian. Here are some of my observations of the challenges of Ethiopian women and girls in my community. These are my personal observations in a town of 18,000 people in Mehal Meda, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.

  • It’s largely girls who are late to school because they are busy preparing breakfast and tea for their families. These girls are then beat with branches, punished and are forced to spend even more time out of the classroom for reasons outside of their control.
  • Some young girls from poor families are deprived of an education and are forced to be servants, nannies and housekeepers while their brothers have the opportunity to go to school.
  • Husbands and fathers have told me in front of their wives and daughters that their wives and daughters are not smart, ugly, bad cooks and have bad character. The men will then laugh about it and continue their insults. The women shyly look to the ground and defenselessly say nothing.
  • Female waitresses are sexually harassed, demeaned, and are forced to dance and flirt with male patrons (not to mention the hundreds of commercial sex workers who have an entirely different set of problems)
  • A large number of male teachers whole heartedly believe that women are naturally quieter and more shy than males and disregard the idea that it is the mistreatment of women that makes them reserved
  • Some male teachers will force or entice their female students (at the primary and secondary level) to have sex with them in exchange for better grades
  • Women are off-handedly slapped, hit and shoved in public
  • Men have expressed that the practice of female genital mutilation (the unsafe removal of the clitoris usually by an unsterilized blade) is acceptable because otherwise women will be unstable and will go crazy from their sexual urges
  • Women are left penniless when their husbands leave them for other women and have no education or hard skills to fall back on
  • Farmers who come to Mehal Meda on market days will cheat on their wives and spend large sums of the family money on alcohol
  • Male children are general given more attention and praise
  • Daughters aren’t given as much freedom as sons
  • Girls do the VAST majority (if not all) of the housework and their brothers are allowed to leave the compound to play with friends while they are stuck at home washing, cooking and cleaning
  • Women are told that they are unclean and impure when they menstruate, some even believe menstruation is shameful
  • Not a single female holds a government office head or vice head position (though my schools vice principal is an amazing woman)
  • Girls are told that they are not as smart as boys and have to work twice as hard to be treated with respect from teachers
  • Families send their daughters to work as domestic servants abroad and some end up being trafficked into the sex trade
  • I have personal been humiliated, degraded, disrespected verbally and physically sexually assaulted on a daily basis for over 2 years

These are just a few incidents that I can personally attest to and doesn’t not include the innumerable horror stories I have heard secondhand.

These observations only scratch the surface of the real problems that exist for Ethiopian women. Below are some facts about gender issues in Ethiopia.

  • Ethiopia ranked 118th out of 136 countries on the 2013 Global Gender Gap Index released
  • Only 18% of Ethiopian women are literate, compared to 42% of men.
  • In Ethiopia 71% of women have suffered from physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
  • 81% of women agree that wife beating is acceptable for at least one reason
  • 17% of Ethiopian women report that their first instance of sexual intercourse was forced
  • Only 14% of women are employed outside their family. On average, women earn 69% of men’s income.
  • 8% of married women were abducted and forced into the marriage
  • The 2011 EDHS found 12% of women aged 15-19 are pregnant or mothers.
  • Women represent 27.8% of the national parliament, but only hold 3 out of 23 ministerial positions.
  • Women hold only 18.7% of land
  • Only 24% of students enrolled in university are female
  • 5 million people have HIV/AIDS; more women than men are infected (5% vs. 3.8%)
  • Fertility rate: 4.8
  • The maternal mortality rate is 470 (out of 100,000 births).
  • Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) prevalence by Region
    • Afar- 91.6%
    • Somoli- 97.3%
    • Oromyia- 87.3%
    • Amhara -68.5% (the region where I live)
    • SNNPR- 71%
    • Addis Ababa- 65.7%
    • Tigray- 29%

*see sources below

In my opinion, the way a country treats its women has a direct impact on its development. Here’s some general facts about the development of Ethiopia:

    • Ethiopia currently ranks 174th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index
    • Average incomes are less than half the average for sub- Saharan Africa
    • Ethiopia is ranked 76 out of 79 countries on IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index
    • Only 3.2% of the Ethiopian population is over the age of 65

*see sources below

Women face innumerable challenges all over the world. Even in the western world, there is no denying that gender bias and systemic barriers limit the potential of women. But it wasn’t until I came to live in a small town in Ethiopia did I understand the extent to which women are mistreated.

Talking about gender issues a touchy subject that has made a lot of people in my community uncomfortable. A lot people (mostly men) think that new (unenforced) laws to protect women have put women on equal footing. Many people even think that these are issues only found in rural villages, not in Mehal Meda. This simply isn’t true. The situation of women in Ethiopia is improving, but far too slowly. Change cannot take place until a community acknowledges a need for change. My battles haven’t been creating change, they’ve been creating awareness about the need for change.

Along with teaching English, I’ve spent the majority of my work efforts empowering female students and educating the community on gender equality. I’ve worked closely with over 100 female students over the past 2 years. Of that number, about 10 have become my extended family. I’m so proud of their newfound confidence and can’t wait to see how they work to create change in their communities for years to come.

Despite the plight of women in Ethiopia, the majority of women I have encountered are admirably resilient and strong. I have found most Ethiopian women to be kind and obsequiously attentive to the needs of anyone who enters their house. Ethiopian women have treated me with kindness beyond measure and have spent countless hours feeding me and making me feel welcome and loved. I have never heard an Ethiopian woman complain until I brought up issues and asked them outright to share their true feelings.

I didn’t know real strength until I met my Ethiopian women friends, neighbors and co-workers. Ethiopia could be 100 years from completely eliminating its long list of harmful cultural practices against women, but I’m positive that until then, there are hoards of amazing Ethiopian women out there fighting for a better life from their daughters, sisters and mothers.

I’d also like to mention that not all men add to this problem and not all men mistreat women. I’ve met some fantastic men who have become advocates for their sisters, daughters and wives and female students. I’ve met both men and women who champion for women’s rights, and I’ve also met both men and women who don’t feel the need to address these issues. It’s a complicated issue and no one sex is solely responsible for the rampant gender inequality that exists in Ethiopia. Gender equality is a community-wide problem and all sides are culpable for its existence and all sides are responsible for its elimination.

This blog is dedicated to my favorite Ethiopian women and best friends:
Shibere Belachew, 16, servant and soon to be student
Meseret Tarakegn, 17, student
Mekides Kassaye, 17, student
Fantaye Girma, secretary and my best friend
Tewabech Taye, teacher
Zelekech Begashaw, teacher

Sources:
World Economic Forum 2013
Ethiopia DHS 2005 and 2011
Oxfam Ethiopia Country Profile 2013
UNICEF 2012

The organizations listed above have published studies and articles from which I gathered the facts mentioned in this blog.  Please send me a message if you would like me to send you soft copies of these publications.

A Day in the Simple Life

It was a Tuesday. I woke up around 6:00am and laid in bed wrapped up in a sleeping bag and a wool blanket. Mehal Meda has been cold lately. At 11,100ft the temperature in my house is constantly 50- 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve gotten used to it though. I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping and wooden doors creaking open and close as my neighbor Shibere made bread in the compound kitchen. I’ll talk all about Shibere in my next blog.

I didn’t have work because it was a Muslim holiday. There are no Muslims in Mehal Meda and no one even knew what the holiday was for, but I didn’t have to go to work and I was thrilled. I was in desperate need of a day off. I decided to go to a café to treat myself to my favorite Ethiopia breakfast food- special full. Full is a spicy concoction of assorted beans mixed with chili powder (berberie) and the “special” in special full implies the addition of scrabbled eggs. It’s delicious. I sat at an outside table in the courtyard of the nicest café in town and enjoyed my breakfast while reading a book on my kindle.

I look so out of place when I eat alone at a café. First, I am a female. In my site, it’s very rare to see women at cafes and it’s even more rare to see them alone at a café.  I was wearing blue jeans, which in my conservative town is also a rare site. And the most obvious of all, I’m white. The town has grown accustomed to my solo dining escapades, but I still get looks of confusion about my kindle. Most people don’t know what it is and when they see me reading they are amazed that I’m reading in the first place and even more so that I’m reading in public.

It was a cold morning. Probably around 45 degrees Fahrenheit and even colder in the windy air. But it was a clear and sunny day. I went to the town stadium which had already been infiltrated by school children by 7:30am. Most were in their school uniforms even though there wasn’t school. Most forgot or didn’t know it was a holiday. The school schedule isn’t common knowledge, but let’s not get started on the confusion of life when a school operates without clear, set dates for school.

I climbed the stone steps of the stadium and read my book in the sun while the kids play soccer and basketball in the background. The patchy soccer field is covered in stones and the goal posts are barely standing. The “basketball court” is two make shift hoops positioned on a dirt court, which due to the waning rainy season is currently half occupied my muddy water. Both courts have no boundaries, the soccer ball is made of old socks and the basketball had just enough air to bounce a few inches off the ground. But the kids don’t mind. Everyone was having a blast and no even noticed my presence. I’m not sure if they even knew it was me all swaddled up in scarves and cold weather clothes.

My leisurely morning ended with a trip to the “suk” of my favorite shopkeeper named Tafaro. Tafaro is a precious, warm, loving woman who always has a smile on her face. She giggles from sheer joy when she sees me. We always engage in the typical exchange of Amharic greetings accompanied with multiple kisses on the cheek and shoulder bumps. She owns a vegetable stall where she works from sun up to sun down everyday. Tafaro always treats me with kindness and is so full of life you can’t help but love her. I hadn’t gone shopping in a while and I was entirely out of food. I needed to stock up on all the vegetables Tafaro had to offer. I bought a kilo of tomatoes (18 birr), 6 green chilies (2 birr), a half kilo of onions (4 birr), a quarter kilo of carrots (3 birr), a half kilo of potatoes (4 birr), and a kilo of bananas (14 birr). I bought over 3.25 kilos (7.15 lbs) of fruit and vegetables for 45 birr ($2.36 cents). $2.36USD worth of vegetables will last me well over a week. Factor in the cost of bread, pasta and rice and I can eat for less than $5 a week. 

I then headed home to take care of some much needed house work. I washed dishes, swept, mopped, and made my cute, mud-walled home sparkle. I then made some vegetable soup and read until I decided I could no longer hold off the inevitable- a much needed bucket bath. I hadn’t bathed in over 8 days, which is by no means the longest I’ve gone without bathing. My current record is 15 days. If you’re disgusted, just imagine having to bath in buckets on the floor of your kitchen when the temperature inside your home is in the fifties.  I heated up some water in a kettle and bit the bullet.

I then watched the West Wing and relaxed until Michael, my new sitemate, called inviting me to hang out over a few beers. Michael is also an education volunteer and just moved to Mehal Meda in mid-September. It is so nice to finally have a friend I can communicate with in fluent English. I have some wonderful Ethiopian friends, but the camaraderie of someone who is from your own country and cultural background is a special connection.  

 A restaurant in Mehal Meda just got draft beer. This is big news in a town of this size. Draft beer is a full 2 birr (10 cents US) cheaper than bottled beer, which has always been available. At this new “draft house” I’ve seen several women drinking in public! Before the introduction of draft beer, I can recall only 2 instances when I saw a woman drinking a beer. If a 2 birr decrease in beer prices has sparked a revolution for women equality in Mehal Meda, I’m all for it. 

I came home around 7:00pm and was greeted by a wild dog on my compound. I was terrified and so was the dog. I screamed like a baby and everyone in my compound came running to my aid. The dog ran out of the compound and I walked away completely unharmed, well other than my ego. My compound finds my fear of wild dogs and rats hysterical. I’m also generally incompetent when it comes to rural living, which has lead to a slew of embarrassing moments.

My compound neighbors probably have hundreds of Leslye stories. They think it’s so funny when I ask them what in my opinion are completely valid questions like: how do I know when coffee beans have been roasted long enough, or what am I looking for when I sort through beans, or how much soap should I use to hand wash my clothes by hand. Recently, I bought some flowers at the market and hung them to dry. My neighbors thought it was amusing that I made wall art from flowers they use to make a spice for butter.

We’ve bonded over these moments. I learned a lot from them and vise versa. They think it’s “amazing” that I brush my teeth everyday and that I turn out my lights when I’m not in the room. I’ve also introduced them all to Ziploc bags, which I’m convinced are the Western world’s single biggest contribution to humanity. And I have a hammer. They really like my hammer.  But I’m pretty sure they like me too.

So Leslye, are you just hanging out around town? Not at all. But I very well could be. It’s frustrating and difficult to get projects started and it’s easy to raise your hands in defeat and surrender. But sitting around doing nothing is a recipe for emotional disaster, which I learned the hard way. I’ve made it a point to make myself as busy as possible. If your interested in the work aspect of my life as a PCV, here’s a few projects I’m currently working on:

  • Primary School English Club
  • I’ve created an ELIC (English Language Improvement Center), where students can come twice a week after school to play games, make crafts, read English books and interact with English learning materials made from local resources
  • Teacher English Club for primary teachers
  • Remedial class for 5th-8th students
  • English Day activities- word of the week, riddle of the week, English Day Lottery
  • Read to Succeed- I just purchased over 1000 fiction books for my school’s library and I’m working on starting a book club and a reading incentive program
  • Student of the Week behavior incentive program
  • High School English Club
  • High School Leadership club that focuses on environment, education, gender and health. My high school club is my favorite and most time consuming project. We hold weekly community service events and I’m routinely hosting trainings and other activities

Mehal Meda in the words of Christmas carols

Life in Ethiopia can easily be related to just about any Christmas song. I got the idea after hearing a cell phone ring to the tune of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in August. To everyone else in the room, the wordless jingle bore no meaning other than that the guy needed to answer his phone. But to me it meant Christmas TV specials, my granny’s cookies and eggnog.

Here’s a look at life in Ethiopia interpreted though Christmas Carols:

  • Silent Night- The nights are far from silent in Mehal Meda. Nights here are filled with the sounds of dogs barking, tree branches screeching on tin roofs, rats scurrying under my bed, babies crying at all hours of the night, and wooden shutters slamming open and close in the wind.
  • Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer- I am Rudolph. I stick out like a sore thumb. My existence alone calls attention to itself. My white skin is his red nose. But like Rudolph, the fact that I’m different makes me special. And because I’m different people often listen to what I have to say. I may not have the ability to save Christmas, but I know a thing or two about English, which in Ethiopia is even more rare than reindeer with glowing red noses.
  • I’ll Be Home for Christmas– This song is not true in my case. I won’t be home for Christmas. But to make up for not being around family for Christmas, I’m blessed with two Christmases. In addition to the Western Christmas celebrated on December 25th, I get to experience Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated in mid January.  Detailing the typical scene of Ethiopian holidays as experienced by foreigners may tamper the joyous image of celebrating Christmas twice. But just imagine 24 hours of unthinkably large portions of ox, goat and coffee force fed to you by any and everyone you have ever met.
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause- Ethiopians do not celebrate Christmas with Santa Clause. But even if they did, they would not see their mothers kissing him. Kissing and public displays of affection are not common place. Kissing is a western practice that only recently reached Ethiopia. Moreover, affection of any sort is rarely shown in public. I have never even seen a couple hold hands, much less peck on the lips.
  • Baby, it’s cold outside- I live at 11,103ft. Right now I’m bundled up in scarves and blankets typing this blog. The temperature inside my house on a typical morning is a crisp 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s windy and chilly outside every single day. It may not be the freezing cold climate found in northern states in the US, but in sub-Saharan Africa this is just about as cold as it gets. And without central heating, there is no escaping the cold.
  •  Christmas Shoes– You may not be familiar with this song by title alone. Christmas Shoes is the country song about a boy who wants to by his sick mother shoes for Christmas because it might be her last.  If shoes said anything about people, Ethiopians could be described as strong, enduring people. Not because their shoes are strong and enduring, but because they are exactly the opposite. The typical shoe is made of thin, cheap plastic molded to look like real shoes. Some resemble those jelly shoes of the 90s and others are malleable plastic made to look like tailored leather shoes or Nike athletic shoes. And a side note- socks are a luxury not used by common folk. Now not only are these shoes uncomfortable by their very nature, but throw in walking in the hilly, rocky terrain for miles each day and imagine how that takes its toll. But I’ve never once seen a single soul limp or take a break to tend to a blister.

I could go on, but at the moment the only other Christmas song that comes to mind is of the Mariah Carey variety. If you substituted the word “you” in “All I want for Christmas is you” with the “cheese,” “hot wings,” or “Mexican food” then I could make a case for that song as well. 

Compound Life

Living on a compound with 14 people is an experience. Like any experience, it has its ups and downs, but at the end of the day there’s always a lesson to be learned.

 

Compound- n. a collection of houses belonging to several families located on a plot of land sharing a gate, shint bet (hole in the ground “toilet”), water tap, laundry line, and fire-stove kitchen.

 

My compound is home to 4 families and myself. The owner of my compound lives in another city, so to some extent you can say I live in complete anarchy. It’s rare for landlords not to live in the main house on their compound. Guess who lives in the main house on my compound? This girl. One girl with a three-room mansion among families living in one to two room houses crammed with multiple people. The elephant in the compound is most definitely why in the world do I need a three-room house.

 

Well it’s complicated. The Ethiopian Ministry of Education pays for my housing (200 birr or $11 USD a month). Originally my house was just two bedrooms. It’s a really nice house by Ethiopian standards and even at two rooms it’s the nicest on the compound. The downside: there are thin wooden doors separating my house from my neighbor’s and a storage room. The mud walls of my house in conjunction with thin wooden doors make for a privacy free existence. Me and my neighbors talk through the walls, I can hear every cry of their 2-year-old baby, I can hear the never ending clanking of a knife on a cutting board, and every evening at 7:00pm I hear the obnoxious intro song for ET (Ethiopian Television aka government controlled media). My landlord came into town one day to clean out the storage room so they could turn it into a house for another family. Terrified of yet another screaming child, I pounced on the opportunity to rent the room myself, this expanding my mansion. At $7 a month, I made a great decision. Or so I thought.

 

Compounds vary in socioeconomic status and mine is on the lower end of the scale.  My house is the only one with cement floors. I have glass windows, steel door and window protectors, a propane stove and a magnetic fly net over my door. My neighbors have dirt floors, deteriorating plastic bags over their windows, makeshift doors and charcoal/ clay stoves. I have a real broom, I wash dishes with a sponge and I have an electric kettle. I only work 5 hours a day, I have no kids to take care of, and I hire someone to wash my laundry. My life is exponentially easier than that of everyone else on my compound.

 

My neighbors repeatedly see me lugging huge care packages to my house, the vast majority of our trash pit is packaging from American products, and to top it off I always forget to pick up my water bucket after I leave it be filled up. Often times I feel guilty and uncomfortable just to walk outside.  My guilt may have caused me to invent things and interpret situations wrongly, but I feel like I’m a constant reminder to everyone on my compound that their life is difficult and unfair.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to balance living as the locals do with living in a way that keeps me sane. It’s difficult to say no to spending money on simple things that make life a little easier. Especially since I live well within the monthly allowance Peace Corps give me and by no means do I live extravagantly. Simple things like having someone wash my laundry and the rent for an extra bedroom costs me less than $11 a month. I feel like my lifestyle can cause me to be perceived as the lazy white girl who’s always in her house reading or watching movies.

 

But I’ve grown to realize that our cultures perceive productivity differently. What I perceive as glares when my neighbors peer into my house may actually be genuine curiosity and interest. My compound is constantly bustling with someone cooking, sorting grains or beans, washing clothes or chopping wood. My only outside chores is filling buckets with water. I avoid the frustration that comes with laborious chores through employing simple conveniences and technology. You can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the girl. That residue of American-ness that will forever be a part of me causes me guilt and frustration that often outshines a sense of pride and patriotism. I can speak the same language as Ethiopians, wear the right clothes, and eat the same food, but I will never be just like everyone else.

 

I have to remind myself that the integration into my community that I so desperately crave would rob me of what makes my experience so great- being unique. Though the fanfare can be frustrating, my ferengi status and crazy antics like covering my mouth when I sneeze, drinking from travel mugs, using zip lock bags and wearing black clothes when I’m not in mourning makes me someone who sparks little flares of curiosity in my students and neighbors. It’s that kind of curiosity that I hope will lead my community to ask themselves what life is like outside of Mehal Meda and then encourage them to purse an education that will allow them to experience it for themselves.

 

So here’s a little run down of family I’m closest with on my compound:

Minilu– Early 30s, lives with his wife, child, and housekeeper. He is the only person on my compound I can communicate with in English, though it’s more like charades and strictly present tense sentences. 

 

Analeym– Minilu’s wife. Occupation: secretary. Sweet woman, but always busy/ not at home.

 

Shibere– My best friend and Ethiopian sister. She is the 14-year-old “housekeeper” for Minilu’s family. Though you could more accurately define her “job” as an indentured servant. Her mother passed away and her father couldn’t afford to raise her, so they sent her to Mehal Meda to work for Minilu. She works every day of the week from sun up to sun down cooking, cleaning and watching Adones (who I will get to in a second). She is the kindest soul I have ever met. She teaches me patience and humility every day. I teach her English in the afternoons from time to time, but have recently started teaching her math and Amharic script. She is 14 and has never been to school. What use is English when you can’t add or write in your own language? She never leaves the compound except to walk across the road to buy bread. I brought her a small Ethiopian pastry once and she cried from gratitude. I’ve been trying to convince Minilu to let me take her out for tea, but no luck. She deserves the world. 

 

Adones– 2 years old. Absolutely adorable. I thought he was a girl for the first month because he’s just so dang pretty. He has very light skin, so they call him ferengi. I call him my little brother and he comes over every day to play with my flashlights and to raid by candy stash. I’ve taught him a few words in English. He always tells me good morning no matter what time of day it is and tells me thank you for simply walking out of my house. The highlight of his day is when a car passes by and someone picks him up to peer over the gate to witness this rare and monumental event.

 

All them crazies love me

In the span of 24 hours my life hit a whole new level of ridiculous. It started one quaint morning in the middle of a crowded, busy part of town while I was minding my own business walking down the rocky, unpaved road. As you can imagine, for me a rocky, unpaved road spells danger, thus I was walking with my head down concentrating on the slow methodological production of coordinated strides (a thoroughly exhausting practice that is only marginally effective in preventing trips and falls). Then all of a sudden, I felt someone grabbing on to my upper thigh. I was wearing one of my fabulous culturally appropriate ankle-length skirts, and this fool somehow managed to work his way up there and tried to lift me over his shoulder in an attempt to kidnap me (a repeated offense of this particular town crazy man). He tried in vain and I pushed him off me. As I was pushing him off, he managed to maul me into a tree before I plummeted to the earth. He scurried away while I laid on the ground surrounded by a crowd of people who came to my aid. I then rushed home crying and dodging the usual suspects that beg for money and shout out the obvious fact that yes, I am a foreigner. I escaped the scene with a large abrasion on my arm and what would later develop into a huge bruise on my hindquarters.

Later I shook it off and went out for some tea. On my walk home, a crazy woman carrying tree branches decided that I hadn’t had enough experiences with crazy people for one day and she began chasing me and shouting what I assumed were choice words in Amharic while waving the branches at me in a “I’m gonna get you” fashion.  A man on the street had to forcefully stop her from beating me with a bushel of mankind’s most primitive weapon. Exasperated and fed up, I hurried home. When I entered my compound, I traversed across a grassy area and was somehow grazed by a mysterious poisonous plant!  Mind you, I a wearing my full-length skirt and the vicious shrub still managed to pierce the fabric and make contact with my upper thigh. It felt like a wasp sting. I ran into my house and I busted out my handy PC medical kit for the second time that day. Unfortunately, the hydrocortisone did not hinder a painful rash from forming.  To top it off, I did not have cell phone service until the next day. When I awoke the proceeding day, I walked to a spot in town that usually has network despite outages elsewhere. I then called a friend to recount my misfortune. In the middle of my perilous tale, my series of unfortunate events finally came to an end after one last blow- an unidentified bug flew directly into my mouth. I swallowed it and choked profusely in the middle of a crowded public area. When it rains it pours. Sadly, not a single event in the tale above has been fabricated or elaborated in any form.

Ironically, my incidents with the town crazies have brought me closer to my community. All the teachers at my school and all the people I see around town every day reached out to me and all wanted to protect me. I had multiple people offer to escort me around town and do all my shopping/ errands for me. Their intentions were good, but their solution to the problem was sheltering me in my house and doing all my bidding for me. I opted to brave the waters of the streets of Club Med (my new name for Mehal Meda) rather than lose my independence.  My community definitively came through for me and I love them more for it.

Other than the events of October 30th, 2012 or 10/30 as they are calling it (they being me), life has been really good. I just finished a two week training (IST In-Service Training) followed by a few relaxing days in Addis. Addis is a magical land of mediocre American food, semi-new movies, fewer livestock roaming the streets, and internet. It’s the mecca of luxury after months of being cooped up in Mehal Meda.

Connectivity update: I bought a classy phone, so whenever I have cell phone service I can check email/ occasionally browse Facebook from my phone. Feel free to send emails now! I’ll have good wifi for skyping in a few months; otherwise keep calling my Ethiopian phone if you want to get a hold of me.

Home Sweet Home

Today marks the close of my first three weeks in Mehal Meda. For the past twenty-one days, the most pressing task on my to do list has been hitting up the local market for tomatoes and checking my post office box. Such a drastic change from the chaos of pre-service training. On August 18th I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the US Embassy in Addis Ababa. The next day, all 70 PCVs in my training group packed up and dispersed throughout Ethiopia. Life in Mehal Meda has re-introduced me to freedom and free time, two crucial components of sanity that I lacked during training. With freedom comes the responsibility to cook on my own. With free time comes absolutely nothing to do when I’m not cooking.

I have a few weeks until school starts which means my only responsibility is to get know the community and teach kids my name so when I walk through the streets they yell “Leslye, Leslye!” instead of “Ferengi, Ferengi!”  So far I’ve made great progress. All my daily routes around town are filled with kids who now yell “Lawslee” with their fists held out in hopes of a fist bump. On a day when I feel obliging, my fist bump count is about 30. Other days I ignore every kid in sight and keep walking. Gotta find sanity somehow.

Luckily when I got to site I was welcomed by other ferengi. There are two environment PCVs who will be in Mehal Meda for the next month, and for my first 10 days a Scottish researcher named Rory was also in town. My sitemates left for their close of service conference just a few days after I got to site, leaving Rory and me to explore Mehal Meda on our own.

Mehal Meda may be in the middle of nowhere in the Ethiopian highlands, but for what it lacks in technology and proximity to civilization, it makes for in natural beauty and exotic wildlife.  Rory and I took a 45-minute hike to a breathtaking canon just outside Mehal Meda. No kids to yell at me, no donkeys to run me over, and no creepy men to ask me where I’m going. I can definitely foresee spending some quality time out there with a good book. About 15 kilometers out of town is a conservation site established to protect guassa, a grass that is widely used to make huts. The guassa reserve is  also home to gelata baboons, an endemic baboon species here in Ethiopia. We hiked around the guassa reserve, saw hundreds of gelatas and met two American gelata researchers who live up in the mountains in tents. Lots to see and lots to explore. Without a doubt Mehal Meda is an interesting and beautiful place to live.

What I eat

I have a small kerosene stove where all the cooking magic goes down. Mehal Meda is home to a whopping five varieties of vegetables- potatoes, onions, carrots, peppers and tomatoes. The only fruit I can get regularly are bananas. Pasta, rice and bread make up the other half of my nutritional intake. Meat is sold in the form of livestock. I do not have the resources, nor know-how to kill and cook chicken, sheep and goat on my own, thus I refrain from the preparation of meat altogether.  I’m only two weeks in, but I think I’ve exhausted all possible combinations of vegetables and pasta/rice. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll dig through the boxes that friends and family have sent me and eat some good ole American non-perishable food. Keep the packages coming, loved ones.

Where I sleep

My home is a humble two-room house with mustard yellow walls and quaint flooring installed by yours truly.  I live on a compound with three other families. An adorable 2 year old boy lives next door who I swore was a girl for the first week. I even justified his short hair as a result of head lice. The root of my confusion stemmed from his adorable girlish features in conjunction with the fact that Ethiopians do not subscribe to the idea that pink and glitter clothing are associated with girls. I realized his true gender when I saw him running naked chasing a goat around my compound.

I like to think of myself as Cinderella pre-Prince Charming. Field mice scamper about my house at night, chickens sing sweet songs to me in the morning, and swarms of flies melodiously buzz and hum in every corner of my room. I like to think of the flies as little fairy godmothers waiting for the right moment to wave their wands and conjure up a western toilet from the shint bet and a beautiful, yet culturally appropriate gown from my heaping pile of dirty clothes.

The only furniture I have at the moments is a bed. The carpenter who was building my furniture was three weeks late. We exchanged some choice words in our native tongues, but somehow it was made clear that I was taking my business elsewhere. An outraged, furniture-less ferengi who knows just enough Amharic to express dissatisfaction is not someone you want to mess with. All I want is a simple, elevated surface so I don’t have to cut vegetables on the floor and so creatures of the night don’t taint the food that is already susceptible to educing all sorts of gastrointestinal woes.

I don’t have a shower, so I take bucket bathes whenever I decide that it’s worth the effort (usually every 5 days). My bathroom is a standard Ethiopian shint bet- a dirt floored hole in the ground with walls haphazardly constructed from mangled tin, mud and old grain sacks. I laugh when I think of all the gas station bathrooms that I once thought here absolutely unacceptable.

What I do

Wake up, make a pretend to do list because I love to do lists, eat breakfast (usually oatmeal and a banana), venture out into the town to tackle my bogus to do list that gives me purpose for the day, cook lunch (a 2 hour ordeal normally resulting in a sub-par vegetable concoction), watch a few episodes of Community, wash dishes inside my house to avoid my neighbors mocking me for my poor dish washing technique (I don’t know how they only use 1 liter of water for a mountain of dishes. I’m slowly giving up on a quality clean just to keep up with the Joneses.), meet with a friend, co-worker, or a random person on the street for coffee to evade a quick completion of the 2 seasons of Community on my hard drive and to avoid sanity loss from being cooped up in my fly ridden abode, heat up lunch’s left overs for dinner, read the Game of Thrones, then it’s bed by 9:00pm.

Ethiopia will welcome the year 2005 tomorrow. Ethiopian New Years is on September 11th, 2012 by the European calendar and on September 1st, 2005 by the Ethiopian calendar. I was told school will eventually start at some point after new years. With no concrete start date, I’m just going to show up and wait until other teachers start to trickle in. I can’t wait to get started.

Facts

I inherited an old January 2012 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine the other day that quickly turned into my go-to fly killing device. I have no interest in what nail polish color matches my mood any more. The only magazine I can relate to these days is National Geographic, and even then I’ve never heard of a Nat Geo special concerning Sub-Saharan Africa optimal fly killing methodology or the proper shint bet squatting technique.

I live out of buckets. I have a bucket for every need possible. There is no indoor plumbing in Mehal Meda, so I have a bucket for washing my hands, a bucket for washing dishes, a bucket for trash, a bucket for washing clothes, a bucket for taking a bath, a bucket for storing water and a bucket to pee in the middle of the night when it’s too cold and rainy to go outside. Too much information? Spend a few weeks in Ethiopia and there’s no such thing as too much information.

I’ve had cell phone service for a whole 3 hours for the past 2 weeks. By some miracle, I had three straight days of service that ended last night. I woke up this morning and it’s back to using my phone strictly as a time telling device. I have to walk 15 minutes to a “network hotspot” just to get two bars of signal. Internet? I’m a tortuous 5 hour bus ride from this internet thing that I hear is pretty popular.

Saturdays are market days, thus I leave my house only in extreme circumstances as to avoid stares and harassment from the huge influx of people that wander to Mehal Meda for their weekly fix of vegetables, chickens, sheep and Obama flashlights. Maybe next week I’ll venture out to get one of those flashlights. A snap shot of market day- thousands of Ethiopians bartering for livestock and arguing about the price of barely in rows of rickety wooden posts complemented by removable cloth awnings. Aside from the presence of Obama flashlights, it’s a timeless vista that could easily be mistaken as a scene from the early 1800s.

I electrocuted myself the other day. I got my kerosene stove working and decided to use my electric kettle to heat up water in an effort to speed up the process. With an open flame beneath me, I idiotically plugged the kettle into the dangling, janky Ethiopian socket. I then convulsed uncontrollably due to electrocution over a blazing kerosene stove. With my hand muscles involuntarily clenched around the socket, adrenaline finally took over and I was able to kick myself over the flames beneath me let go of the source of my electrocution. Side note on outlets here- sockets run on 240 volts of electricity. Power enough to fry a US hair straightener ran through my entire existence. It was actually quite exhilarating.  Side note on the kerosene stove- the directions were in Mandarin and for a different stove model. I still managed to somehow piece it together. I might not have figured out where all the parts go, but even with a few pieces not in use, it works just fine.

The Ethiopian Prime Minster sadly past away a few weeks ago. I walked outside my compound a few days after his death was announced and found tens of thousands of Ethiopians dressed in white traditional garb yelling, screaming, and chanting- some riding donkeys while raising rifles in the air, some crammed in the back of the beds of fruit trucks, and others holding up signs in cryptic Amharic script. I naturally assumed I was in the middle of a revolution, thus several minutes of panic ensued. Cultural difference #897898789789- Ethiopians morn very differently than Americans. Through some broken Amharic and by disregarding my context clues entirely, I managed to discover that these seemingly outraged, vengeful and angry Ethiopians where actually expressing sorrow while simultaneously fulfilling some sort of cultural responsibility to their beloved leader.

The Mehal Meda creeper that I mentioned in my previous blog post is a shopkeeper at the shop closest to my house. I found that out the hard way. Mehal Meda hasn’t had cell phone service lately, so sadly I haven’t gotten any riveting new texts.

To post this blog, I thrice daily visited the post office for a week straight in hopes that it would be open to mail a flash drive to a friend with internet who could then post this on my behalf. Moral of the story, mail me letters to give me something to look forward to on the off chance that the post office will be open.

Despite the ridiculous daily occurrences of Mehal Meda life, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.  I honestly have a blast all by myself in my house coming up with things to do to past the time. My days are quite polarized. One second resource deprivation and irritating children frustrate me to the point of insanity, then the next minute I find myself in the middle of a gorgeous canon or watching hundreds of baboons roam about on a nature reserve. Every day is a new challenge. Every experience helps to decode cultural mysteries that once left me completely baffled. I’ve learned to accept that I’ve entered into a unique situation in a unique corner of the world. By turning confusion and frustration into humor, I’ve learned a lot about this place and will surely and hopefully learn a whole lot more