Though Ethiopia will never leave me, new experiences, places and stories arise and it’s about time I started blogging again. You can follow me here:
I never remember my parents having to teach me to be brave. I was never afraid of the ball playing sports in fact I was a little too fearless at times. I gave speeches in front of the mayor when I was in elementary school. And I loved sleepaway camp one month in the mountains alone without my parents. No one had to ever tell me not to be afraid of the ball or to speak louder or not to be homesick. This is who I was and in a sense forshadowing who I would eventually become. But if you ask my parents they would tell you that I had a hard time with change and making the decision that would evoke that change. But now, I find myself in a pretty big period of change. Getting on that plane… making it real will be difficult. Like my childhood self I am a little hesitant for this change and to let go of this life abroad.
In a few days, I will land on U.S. soil for the first time in two and a half years. I have mixed emotions about my arrival stateside in a similar way that I had mixed emotions about leaving Ethiopia for good. If you ask most volunteers, they would describe it as bitter sweet but that’s so predictable. Bitter sweet is not how I would answer people when they ask the very very loaded and dreaded question “So, how was Ethiopia?” How do you answer such a thing? Over two years of things no one else can relate to. How do I speak these words in English nonetheless? What has Ethiopia taught me or how are you different would be better questions to ask a returened volunteer. If you think you know about bravery I’d say I know more. I have been braver then anyone I know in America and that’s what Ethiopia is. It’s brave. I am brave. My fellow volunteers are brave. My students are brave. My friends are brave. Sometimes, you have no choice but to be brave in the face of what Ethiopia is.
But even then, I couldn’t answer you I will likely tell you a story instead. I was at a faramers Market in New Mexico before I left. I was in a bad place. I had a bad year. This guy at the market went on and on about his cucumbers. I remember listening because of how proud he was. I remember thinking gosh I wish I was ever that proud of anything in my life. My jealousy was apparent that he loved his cucumbers more then anything I had ever put work into. And I always remember him because as I walked away he smiled and said “enjoy your moment” it was powerful to me spicificly at that time. So when people ask me about Ethiopia I’ll explain my moments that added up to make me… well, me and how proud I am of what I’ve done. I am even more proud then this hippy man and his cucumbers.
So ask me about Ethiopia and I’ll tell you about a girl Selam with a skin pigmentation problem that got kicked out of school for it who I desperately tried to get back in school. I rubbed myself all over it to prove that it’s not contagious and told the other kids how smart and cool she is. By the time I walked out of the village with my bag she was the queen of the block. Organizing games and speaking better English then some of my co-workers. She got into school and was ranked number 3 in her second grade class.
The same girl that was almost beat to death by her mom. The way I waited one second too long to pull the breast-feeding mom ( with a 3 day old infant) away from kicking the girls head into the wall kind of haunts me. How am I different? I won’t wait I won’t contemplate when I see bad things happen I am braver then I once was. I’ll tell you of the way she loved me stroaking my arm telling me how beautiful I am the same way I told her that everyday. The way she disappeard for 6 months and everyone told me she was in the village. I was brave letting it go, moving on with my life and hoping that she was alive and safe. She arrived like magic one day like nothing happened and we picked up with her English right where we left off.
I’ll tell you about Lilly, the outspoken teenage girl who stood up to bullies and adults that wouldn’t look at her burnt scard face. She stood in class and corrected her teacher’s English with a slight slur because of her hanging lip. From that moment on I wanted to know her. A girl speaking up, a girl that the community shuns without fear she showed me what bravery is. I insisted on painting her deformed hand with nailpolish one afternoon. I was just asking for the other hand like nothing was weird. I pretended like I didn’t see the strange shapes or the lack of nail and we smiled. I painted what I could. I ran my fingers across her skin one last time as I remember her shining at Camp and everyone voting her the most inspirational award. I advised her to continue her education. Gobez iya I am awesome/smart she said. We laughed.
I’ll tell you about my co-worker Wilkenaeh who spoke 4 langauges and loved to learn. He bought 8 baby chickens with all of his savings. A big deal and an invesment he told me one day. In his hand was a book titled How to Become Successful and Rich with a picture of a white guy in a suit on the front. I have to try Shay right? I have to try and keep trying I have a family you know. He later informed me that all but 2 of the chickens died. I am in trouble he said that was all of my savings. He spoke proudly at the schools coffee ceremony, a monthy social program, reciting English phrases to impress me and teach the others. He sat next to me and whispered translations into my ear from the triva game and got really excited when I knew the answers. Like I was a child and everyone was not equal. I got the first shot at the answer while everyone clapped for me. All he wanted from me was the promise that we could contiue to practice English he just wanted a simple letter from America. Maybe his family was hungry (teachers make $65 a month) but all he cared about was learning and keeping in touch. He’s so brave to be living in a place that he’ll never get out of. But his spirit and smile I could never forget.
Or Asqual and her daughter Senyite. Asqual never went to school she can’t read or write even in her native language. When she got a cell phone I watched her daughter help teach her to memorize the keypad. She did a “work for food” program building the roads carrying heavy rock day after day. It’s work she’d say like she wasn’t tired or her 90 pound body wasn’t soar. Week after week she’d give me some of the rice she earned. No no I’d say but she insisted.
Or Alua whos two parents died (presumably from HIV) and he continued to smile as long as you didn’t talk about HIV education. He was the number one student in his grade 9 class this year.
Or Abraha who was in an arranged marriage at the age of 11. She had two children her husband left her years ago. She works as a maid making $10 a month. But continues to make everyone smile and laugh when she comes around. She is somewhat of a class clown and a good friend. I learned her story just weeks before I left.
Or Tsigab who was raised in the rual area poor and hungry whos town was bombed as he walked to school. He later worked as a soldier then tried to escape through the desert to Sudan but was caught. He came to my door often we’d stand outside and talk about philosophy for hours. Culturally not allowed to enter the opposite sex’s home we stood and squatted for hours sometimes. One night he said Shay I have a big question for you. I want to marry Zafu but I don’t have money (dowry) to pay and her father said no. We made a plan we will get pregnent so that he must say yes. Is that bad he said? I am not a bad person. Do you love her? Yes he said. Then don’t let her go and do whatever you need to. And no, I don’t think that you are a bad person. A few months later, I was in their wedding drinking beers with the groomsmen as we all got ready. A few months later, a week before the baby was born Tsigab got transferred for work and Zafu had to rely on neighbors to rush her to the clinic ( I was also away at camp). Without power or a doctor she asked me for my blood type before I left affaid of bleeding out. And then, when the baby was born I got to walk Zafu and the new-born out of the church in a processon through town for the christening. Tasigab was promoted at work and now runs the accounting deparment of a bank.
All of these people were my examples of what perserverence and bravery really is. My acts of bravery came in the form of punching men in broad daylight for grabbing me. Or getting the community to rally around me when a man started to stalk me on my runs, in cafes, outside of my house and masterbate. I stood in a room full of men confronting the guy as my community said “want us to kill him”? No I said I just don’t want him to come near me. Simply buying my food at the weekly market I had to go in swat hands away from my breasts and argue over pennies for the right price. Snapping at them in their native language, I heard you, you just told him 8 birr and now you are telling me 12. No, walking away. Simply to eat, to buy my food took bravery and conviction. Getting on a bus was like a wrestling match or better yet a wresting match within a mosh pit sometimes. Clutching my purse to my boobs protecting both I used my size as leverage and yelled at people when they didn’t le t old women and moms with kids on first. Balage bad! I’d yell as men pushed the girls to the ground making space for them to get up and get a seat. Running a double marathon in The Tigray Trek that was or outright crazy. Something like 50 miles in two days. Who knew I could but we were all brave those days not thinking about the miles behind us just set on reaching the next town. The next week getting my wisom teeth pulled wide awake digging my nails into the chair trying not to jump away. Gripping brave and strong because the people I was surrounded by daily were just that.
Or Weini. The brightest most interesting and impressive single Ethiopian woman I know. She’s a professor at the local university and is interested in talking about philosophy, religion and life. She’s adventurous and is up for anything new and exciting which is rare for Ethiopians and women especially. She keeps up with us running and loved yoga when I taught it at summer camp. I left her my mat and some videos. She took us to where her family is from on the border as we hiked the mountainside and crossed bridges together and I felt sad that she couldn’t cross to America with me.
Ethiopia has been a whirlwind of experiences. Imagine if someone asked you for your lifestory but really only wanted your 2 minute elevator speech. What would you say? I am thinking about that as I write this. And though I enjoy talking about Ethiopia it is also really difficult. Being brave maybe comes more naturally to some then others but Ethiopia is another beast. Another level of assertivness that I really never natuarally had within me. Like saying F*** you takes a lot of energy for me. But Ethiopia taught me to say it and act like that at times for the sake of safety. And it taught me love for the sake of sanity and hope for the sake of simple survival. Ask another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer how they have changed and some from Ethiopia will tell you things like they have become meaner less patient and angry. But most will tell you that they have become braver and wiser and stronger then they ever thought possible.
I don’t know anything have concluded. I am significantly more welread, more understanding of the world around me meaning I know nothing with certainty. I am less afraid of anything, more curious and I stand “in the middle” or undecided on a lot of things that I once thought that I was certain of. I am neither a republican nor democrat, and after a passionate early 20’s campaigning and protesting for or against things I once found imporatant—I do not believe in politics with any conviction or certainty anymore. I am frustrated by sytems that forget about “the people”. My ferver is not for religion or politics. It’s for people young people more specifically, my girls group for their openness to the world for change and their bravery because they have to stay there. Opionions matter but they only matter if you can see understand and appreciate the other side. I do not believe in saving Africa or charity in the way westerns do. I will never give money to Africa and avoid buying anything that claims to be a charity. I do not believe for a moment that Africa will progress on it’s own with western money. I believe in sustainability and empowering local people. I believe in kids to be that change for the next generation and I believe in deep friendship that cross all sectors, langauges and religion. Yakanyalay Tigray and Amaseganalo Ethiopia
Enjoy the video!
September 8, 2014
On the Edge
Ethiopia has you living on the edge, in survival mode. One wrong move can send you over the edge of what seems like a cliff to fall to your demise. I watched other volunteers really loose it. You have to learn to cope, to balance on the edge and not let yourself tip because the way down is pretty damn far and likely hard to recover from. I remember saying to my friends I don’t want to hate this place but it’s really hard to love. You are so high up in this strange mountain world isolated at times gripping for someone or something to keep you sane. You hug the solid ground. You stop rationalizing and you go into survival mode. My friends and students became my solid ground and my life. Post Ethiopia without them has been a bit confusing as I often imagine what they are doing each day and hope that they are healthy and safe. In Ethioipa it’s a life living on the edge… the edge of sanity, survival, sickness, patience, control, saftey and health. It’s the edge of love and hate, compassion and frusturation. Trying to process all of these things has been a challenge as I travel and attempt to explain how I got here and where I have been. Most of my days, it’s easier not to talk too deeply with the people that I meet. My wavering between loving the country I called home for so long and hating it for all of its dangers keeps me constantly processing and evaluating my every move.
I am now in Nepal, known as The Top of the World. Located between China and India, Nepal is home to The Himilayan Mountains and the most famous peak in the world Mt.Everest. I just got back from a 10 day Trek in Langtang National park where climbing mountains seemed to encapsulate what working and living in Ethiopia has been. Each day, an uphill battle hoping wishing and wanting something better higher more magnificent from all of the work I put in. My guide, porter and I hiked for about 7 hours each day traversing through rolling green hills, crossing rivers and bridges, sliding in mud standing in awe of the green mountains, red buck wheat fields, blue and pink flowers and white snow capped mountains all in one glance.
Reaching snowy peaks I never knew I could climb made me feel invincable. Not thinking too much being on the edge of the mountain required nothing more then trusting myself. Just one foot in front of the other the edge was less scary in my mind the more I walked, the more I survived the more I started to really live.
We got to the glacier and my guide assessing my stamina said lets go up there. I said Ok because I felt fine and we climbed and climbed and climbed. We saw and heard avalanches in the distance, and kept climbing. Then I was reminded that I was in fact human. And being on the edge felt like I had reached my own edge. When we reached the peak at 5,000 meters (15000 ft) I suddenly felt a little out of control. In an instant, I felt like a rock was thrown at my head and pain radiated into my fingertips. Altitude sickness hits quick without warning, my breathing was fine, I wasn’t exhausted or weak and thats how it gets you. People that are in good shape don’t see it coming. You go too high too fast and then bam. You are done for. I have to go down I told Ram quickly realizing that the massive headache and pain wasn’t going away. I spent the next 5 hours vomiting and tying bandanas around my head to relieve the pressure. I was in fact human and weak. The next day, I woke up and felt brand new.
We slept in tea houses, peoples homes transformed into cabins designed to accomidate the trekers coming through. We could see the mountains of Tibet (modern day China), I felt like I could touch them. These kind gentle people were also at an in-between crossroads. Tibetians once lived in China. They have their own culture, language, foods and history. They have been persecuted by the Chinese Communist government murdered and pillaged most have sought refuge in India and some in Nepal. Like my town on the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, these people are unique. These are people on the edge of worlds, nationality, borders, conflict and struggle. Each night I decided to read The Dali Lama since I was staying in the homes of his followers in exile. Each house had a small Buddhist shrine with his photo, candles lit, 7 small cups of water, an offereing and each morning they bured inscence that smelled like sage they spashed water and prayed. In his book he writes:
I am often moved by the example of small insects, such as bees. The laws of nature dictate that bees work together in order to survive. As a result, they possess an instinctive sense of social responsibility. They have no constitution, laws, police, religion or moral training, but because of their nature they labour faithfully together. Occasionally they may fight, but in general the whole colony survives on the basis of cooperation. Human beings, on the other hand, have constitutions, vast legal systems and police forces; we have religion, remarkable intelligence and a heart with great capacity to love. But despite our many extraordinary qualities, in actual practice we lag behind those small insects; in some ways, I feel we are poorer than the bees.
One can take this as a testimate to how cool bees really are because they are that impressive. Or, as a statement that humans over complicate pretty much everything in the world. We create borders, politics, and exploitation and highlight differences in ways that really cripple us. The more I travel the more similarities I find in humanity. Weather it’s the way kids smile and excitedly greet me, or the hospitality of complete strangers drinking yak butter tea from traditional Tibetean cups or three cups of buna coffee in Ethiopia, I have seen the beautiy of humanity in it’s very basic state.
Ethiopans boast a lot about being the first, the oldest, the most origional of a lot of things. Things like the first Mosque in Africa Negash, 15k south of my village, the final resting place of The Ark of the Covaenent 3 hours west of my village, the first coffee tree called “The Mother Coffee Tree” in the Kaffa Zone, the home of the Rasta movement in Shashumani, and of course where Lucy was found in The Afar Region. Believe these things or not, Ethiopia does in fact lay claim to the source of the famous Nile River and this is undisputable. Located in the Amhara Zone, Lake Tana is the lake where the water for the river starts. Known to Ethiopians as Abay, or Tis Abay where the waterfall is, it is astomishlingly less then impressive. It’s muddy brown color trickles off of the cliffs into a pool of thick sludge. The black rocks that it flows through narrowly cascading through the small town of Tis Abay makes you happy that they have water to wash themselves and their clothes in even though it is dirty. From Abay in Ethiopia, The Nile splits into two The Blue Nile and The White Nile running through Sudan north into Egypt back to one. My good friend Amanda and I met our first week in Ethiopia. We took a trip to visit another volunteer’s site and we got to see The Nile by taking a boat to see the Hippos in the distance. Over two years later, lots of cold lonely nights, some harsh words, beautiful hugs, some punches, and lifelong friends later Amanda and I found ourselves on the other side of The Nile River nostalgic for Ethiopia at times, in Egypt the birthplace of civilization.
The Nile in Ethiopia
We arrived in Ciaro and headed straight to The Giza Pyramids. Neither of us slept that night so our delierous state made the whole experience of seeing the magnificent pieces of arcitecture that much more unreal. It was a hazy fog as we got into a western car, drove on an organized highway and stepped out into the blistering heat. I thought that it was a mirage but got excited immediately when the camel men selling trinkets approached us. La Shukran, no thank you we repeated over and over again. This is real I kept telling myself. Our guide Mohommed pushed us through kind of fast shewing away a lot of the pedlers and harassment. I asked like a small child can I go touch it? He laughed. Yeah let’s drive around to get the good pictures then you can go do whatever you want. Well, it turns out that you can’t really do whatever you want. I decided to climb up and up and up. Eventually we got yelled at the come back down either for indecency because I was wearing a long skirt or because you really can’t climb on them and some other people were up dangerously high. I used my arms to lower myself slowly and hold my skirt tight at the same time. Each rock weighs 3 tons Mohommed told us. What the hell I kept thinking how could people possibly have done this back then? Mohommend claiming to be an “Egytpologist” as everyone in Egypt does, said that no no slaves didn’t build the pyramids. Farmers without work for most of the year were contracted fed and sheltered to build them. Having lived and seen the realities of the world in Ethiopia where what we call history is their reality I decided for myself that slaves and pesants absolutly built the great giants. They stacked sand and made ramps he explained.
We went to The Ciaro Museum where a lot of stuff is preserved. I mean A LOT of stuff. I have never ever seen so many artifacts crammed into a huge 3 story burning hot as hell building. There were tombs, mummies, sculptures, pottery, fabulous jewelry, more tombs and more statues. Things were so close together that it felt like they were fighting for inches of space. Like what we saw already in the beautiful city, it was impressive. We spent another day just walking around the city, eating every chance we got and smoked hookah at the cafes. Teenagers, adults businessmen, girls with their friends and old lonely men could all be found in these coffee houses or shiha cafes. There was beautiful street art, a crazy winding market full of brass and lanterns, mosques, churches and even a synagogue. The people were neither rude nor friendly. To be honest, they didn’t stand out much to me. Until we met Ali and Mustafa.
The Nile in Egypt
We flew south to Aswan the hottest town in Egypt at the hottest time of year at the hottest time of day. We we stepped off of the plane I felt my heart racing 120+ degrees of heat and no escape from it for a moment I panckied. Egypt in the summertime, I knew but ignored the warnings. We arranged to be picked up and taken to a focoucca boat waiting for us on The Nile. The modest wooden sailboat sat peacefully on the dock but all we could think about was how dangerously hot it was and what the hell we got ourselves into committing to be outside for the next 3 days with no escape from the sun pumping us with heat. We arrived and Ali greeting us both by name correctly and commented on how in my passport photo I look like a “black”. I laughed and said well I spent quite a bit of my time in Africa so you can call me “Habesha” Ethiopian. He smiled. Yes yes yes Habesha, you know our ancestors were Habesha. A bit relieved that we were now among our own, Amanda and I felt like our spirits were lifted from the oppressive heat. He went on to explain that Nubians are the decendents of Ethiopia and Sudan, the tribes settled along The Nile in Egypt a long time ago. We are from Elephatine Island right over there. He pointed as a young twenty something hopped on the boat and helped prepare lunch. This is Mustafa. Falaffel, fresh pita, cucumber, roasted eggplant, hummas and feta cheese starred us back as they put the final touches on. We were starving by 3pm we hadn’t eaten all day and the sun sucked every bit of energy out of me. Once we took off and ate we got excited. The sun started to set and the stillness in the air was broken by a riverside breeze that was an unexpected gift and a great relief. We spent 3 days sailng slowly on The Nile stopping to relieve ourselves on the riverbanks, cook and sleep on foam mattresses all together under the stars on the boat. We lounged around with these two free spirits what we just met. It felt like we knew them longer as Ali, a 50-something year old muslim man recounted the times before the revolution when the river was so crowded with tourists on boats like these that there wasn’t a place to dock. Now, we were literally the only ones on the river. I got up at night to pee and found Ali praying at 4am as the call to prayer rang through the air from the small village nearby the banks. It was quiet, it was just what I needed to process Ethiopia. We talked about life in Ethiopia and Ali got excited when I handed him 1 Birr note, Ethiopian money worth about 20 cents. They lit a fire and drummed for us singing Nubian rythms and “she’ll be coming around the moutain” replaced with “She’ll be sailing down the nile when she comes…”. I understood some words in their language and they were impressed when we commented on that they were talking about in their own language. We talked about Ethiopian coffee and the black pot called a jebena that Ethiopians use to make it. Mustafa said we drink jebena bun… us Nubians, in Ethiopia they drink jebena bunA I said. Amanda brought some out of her bag to share with them. Habesha buna Ethiopian coffee. They liked it and we shared in our hearts and in our cultures even adopted cultures this is what it meant to be human. To share to tell stories and exchange words and smiles and share life sustaining food. We parted ways with big hugs and smiles.
We didn’t know it, but we were about the see the most spectacular temples on our way to and in Luxor then I ever imagined. The Karnac blew me away and made me wonder about everything. About life, progress, deveopment, history, inequality and human perfections and all of the imperfections. I thought about development, architecture, art, beauty, failure and stagnation. What makes some societies prosper, develop and progress while others stay stuck in anciet days. How can this be? Are we on the same planet I wondered? I thought about the spectacular temples that made me feel so small here in Egypt. Jealous of their magnificence, but proud of my own. I thought about the times in Ethiopia when I felt small in much much different ways and all of the beauty of my friends that surrouded me and made me feel whole. I thought of all of the times I felt magnificent conquring personal battles and running up mountains with the pitter patters of jelly shoes follwing me up and up. Teaching, learning growning making friendships and changing lives I felt good. But nothing in Ethiopia or in the world for that matter is as impressive as Karnac. I wondered how people thousands of years ago were more advanced and made more societal gains then modern day Ethiopians. What set them thousands of years behind the rest of the world is beyond me. But I do believe that we can judge a society by the way they treat each other. I can’t speak for ancient Egypt, but Ethiopians often do not treat each other well. It holds them back keeps them stagnant. I wish for my friends and for my habesha family that they one day that they get to feel as bold and magnificent as the temples of Egypt. I also highly recommend visiting Egypt once in your lifetime.
We walked along the boardwalk of The Nile. We were a bit quiet we planned the next morning to take a hot air balloon over Luxor I was thinking about what that would be like. We were not talking to one another. I always appreciate my friends who can be with me and we can each be silent in companionship but in our own minds at the same time. I was thinking about the life sustaining water of The Nile. About how much I missed water living the the desperate desert lands of Tigray Ethiopia and how lucky Egypt was to have the bulk of the river at their fingertips. We heard screams, not sure if it was of joy or sadness we quickly realized what was going on. After loving the river for the life it brought we were struck by the screams of tragedy, a mother desperate and wailing. A lot of kids were playing in the water, girls in full hijab birkas swimming and kids in their clothes. The screams were of a mother, her daughter pulled from the water limp. People gathered, us not being of much help, we would just crowd the situation decided to stay away. The screams stopped thinking that the kid was ok we kept walking. Relieved, we started talking and reflecting. A few minutes later a man came running past us with the limp girl swung over his shoulder. Running towards the shore and street it was pretty clear that the black clothed muslim teenager was not alive. The moments of joy for the water turned into life sucking death. That afternoon I never felt so many extreme feelings in my life. Like the past two years I suppose, full of beauty and tragedy that Africa is.
I never liked sua the local beer. Made from gesha leaves, grain, burnt bread, yeast and what looked like sticks and charcoal in the bottom it sat fermented and stewed for 5 days. It tasted like sour muddy body odor. Corshaha mai I’d say, dirty water. They’d laugh. Because I love beer but never grew to love the Ethiopian version of it I found myself trapped in this world where I didn’t like… the beer. How strange? It’s like everything I once enjoyed became unejoyable. There was so much that I didn’t like about Ethiopia. I find myself reflecting often on the things I can now do being outside of the country that I couldn’t do before. Like turn on a faucet and water come out. Sit down to go to the bathroom. Wash my body. Look pretty. Not feel threatened. Eat fruits. Sit at a resturant alone as a woman. I feel safe and feel love. But not nearly as loved as I did in Ethiopia.
B sat me down at his house. His family bought meat a very expensive luxury to say goodbye to me. Ususally only reserved twice a year for holidays they wanted to give me something special. You have been my family there is nothing more special I told him. But he insisted. Me, the mother and daughter cooked all afternoon as the kids climbed all over me shouting one… two… three.. four.. Shay! English! Shay! B sat in silence. He wanted to talk. I wanted to talk but I think everyone was just sad. I was leaving. I tried to engage him. But he sat off in the distance on a rock leaning on his cane, crossing his empy pant leg over the other. He flattened it and set it at a perfect 90 degree angle as if his leg was still there across his lap. He played with the cuff for a while.
We started to eat as the darkness crept up. Don’t worry Shay I will walk you home. It’s dangerous to be out after dark. Ats still removed off in the corner was just staring at me. So B tell me about your life your education your family anything you want to share. I went to school then I became a soldier he said you know this Shay. The TPLF (Tigraian Peoples Liberation Front) are bad Shay that’s how I lost my leg. Thats the majority ruling party now so to say such a thing in public could land you disappeared but he said it quietly. Your secret is safe I told him. No, when you leave do not keep this a secret. Please Shay tell everyone that this is not a democracy that when they shot me they left me to die, and when I didn’t die they refused to treat me at the clinic. Like I was not human. So I made my way south near the capital 20 hours to get treated but by that time my leg was so infected it couldn’t be saved. I talk to a lot of TPLF soldiers but I have never heard the side of The Derge I told him. At least during The Derge everyone was equal. Now in this so-called democracy if you don’t join the party (TPLF) you can’t get a job. Today, when I go to the clinic they know I was a Derge and charge me double. They wont treat me sometimes and don’t let me apply for loans or government benefits. Please Shay tell my story he said. I will I’ll tell everyone’s story and my story will keep growing as I learn the proper ways to share and process things. B I can share your story but know that I cannot change things. I cannot change your country or your people. The same way you cannot change the fact that I hate Sua the local beer. He laughed. I can’t change people but I can listen. It’s not my job to fix anyone or anything. You have to approcach life, politics and even realtionships ready to share and learn not fix. It’s something I’ve learned with time. I am not a healer or repairman. I am a human willing and ready to share in the name of friendship. So heres to you B! You may never get your leg back but you got to share your story.
As I got older I realized more and more the permanent nature of saying goodbye. Even if your heart isn’t ready to do so you have to stand up strong and tall part ways with people you once loved and continue on your path. There is always a bit of sadness mixed with hope. You tell yourself that you will meet again even though you know that you probobally won’t. In Ethiopia the lack of internet and a reliable post office it was a sure thing that I won’t see most of these people ever again. Shay where are you going nabayaki the kids would ask. Aday my country I’d say. When will you come back? Dehada I’d say in the future. I taught the kids in Ethiopia to speak the truth. To not be afraid even if the government and the community believe in silence. I told them to smile when you feel like smiling laugh when you want to laugh and cry if you want to. I feel something when you are not in class with us H would say because in their vocabulary they can’t find the words. We feel something… when you are missing and now you will be gone forever. Maybe I will feel something forever Shay don’t go just yet H begged.
This is being human I told them we love we leave we cry and laugh. We are all human. In Ethiopia I learned that society can force people to be fake but everything seemed so real on the inside when you are trying to survive. I was silenced afraid of the government since they jailed numerous bloggers and disappeared people. The silence ate me up inside. But the people trusted me, they believed in me and made me so brave. Izoka be strong I told people knowing that this was easier said then done. So when I was saying goodbye I knew that this was likely forever and I also knew that I had to be brave and strong too.
I met with famalies for my final goodbyes and like Americans, Ethiopians have a really hard time with the permanence of saying goodbye. Each family insisted that I come one more time for coffee even though that was impossible. A, his wife and five children, all girls invited me over. They cried as we drank coffee and split a single piece of bread, all that they could afford. Can I give you tahini (barley powder) he asked please we want to give you a gift. A kilo or two of barley or 3 meals for his family. I refused claiming that I couldn’t fly on an airplane with it but I appreciated the gesture. Please Shay come again tomorrow. So I did even though my time was limited and I had like 20 famalies that I promised I’d visit. A sat me down and told me all about his time as a Soldier fighting against The Derge. He said people died, we fought and we were brothers. When it was time to part we were all sad. We said alem terakib imbir aytamanun. A, I said, phrases sometimes don’t translate can you explain this in English? Ok I try he said: The world makes people meet. We come together you know like us soldiers. After the fighting we have to separate but our love will never stop. Shay I know you must go but the relationship will never end. You are the kindest person we know you are my daughter. Please Shay don’t forget us. I won’t I told him.
This really hit me. I feel like I survived a battle of sorts like I was a solder too that my tour of duty is finished and I now must depart. The fight is not over but my fight is for now at least. I am exausted and worn out. Ethiopia is one of the poorest, least democratic democracies, one of the most mal-nourished, disease ridden desperate of places on the planet. Do I love my soldier family? My community who stood up for me, protected me, took in a complete strange, fed me what little they had, trusted me with their secrets and loved me so deeply and protected me when I was in danger. I do. I love them more then I have ever loved another human being in my life. Some of them will never know it. And I fear that I will never love this deeply again. Do I love my other soldier family? The other Peace Corps Volunteers and staff that protected me supported me and comforted me? Absolutly. And I will never ever be the same again. I wish everyone could have seen the parade that walked me to the bus station crying waving from their door steps. I was overwhelmed as the maids, businessmen, farmers and kids gravitated towards me to say goodbye. I thought of all of the marathons I ran up mountains when I thought that I couldn’t take one more step. And all of the people that ran with me along the way. I flet happy and peaceful. I felt Accomplished.
So I sat in the airport ready to leave my place in this strange strange world and all I could think about was how it’s not fair. It’s not fair that I get to leave this place and they don’t. As my student S said Shay, you are always here you are always here with me and in my heart. Even if you go away on that airplane you are Tigraywit (Tigrayan), habesha de ki Ethiopian, haftay, my sister for life.
You can’t ever really know the meaning of your life…
And you don’t need to…
Just know that your life has a meaning…
Every life has a meaning… whether it lasts one hundred years or one hundred seconds…
And every death… changes the world in its own way…
Gandhi knew this.
He knew his life would mean something to someone, somewhere, somehow.
And he knew with as much certainty that he could never know that meaning…
He understood that enjoying life should be of much greater concern then understanding it.
And so do I.
You can’t know…
So don’t take it for granted…
But don’t take it too seriously…
Don’t postpone what you want…
Don’t leave anything misunderstood…
Make sure the people you care about know…
Make sure they know how you really feel…
Because just like that…
It could end.”
The wind froze my ears as my two students heads leaned on my sholders tears dampening my sweater. The first moutain pass came quickly and up and around and around their heads transitioned to my lap. Festal! Festal! I yelled calling out to the bus boy for plastic bags because I knew they were about to vomit. I rubbed their backs as they alternated between crying the vomiting. Feeling them close and their sadness that summer camp was over I felt it too. The crazy adventure this has been seemed to be summed up into this moment. Vomit, sweat, tears, sickeness, chills and pain it was as if they were expelling from their bodies all of the bad things that had ever happened to them in their lives. Saying goodbye to the violence, the demening comments the pushes and shoves, the laughing and taunting, the sexual harassment and the silencing. Or maybe it was me imagining it all because I am now ready to say goodbye to it too forever. At camp we felt safe, whole, like ourselves again.
At GLOW (Girls/Guys Leading Our World) it’s the first time a lot of the girls got to simply hang out with their friends.
They got to spend their time learning about health and gender equality, they get to play soccer, and discuss life instead of being trapped inside their compund walls for hours making coffee, sweeping, carrying their siblings on their backs, washing clothes and catering to their famalies. The kids had to say goodbye to all of the Peace Corps Volunteers that will be leaving this month too that have been examples that no you do not need to get married and have babies as a teenager. We showed them that no you don’t need a husband or wife to make you feel important or special or worthy and no babies are not just something you have when you are told by someone else to do so. You body is your own. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have a baby. According to the UN, it ranks 149th in the world. It’s a serious thing we told them, people die in childbirth a lot here and because their bodies are so small in general, they are malnourished that the babies can cause tears in the uterus and lining causing fistulas. The health faciities leave much to be desired. There are a lot of complications that come along with carrying a baby. And yes, staying in school improves the quality of life worldwide. We showed them Girl Rising the film about girls education worldwide. We talked about how girls grow up to be mothers who then teach their famalies. We discussed what makes us feel beautiful and what makes us feel ugly. What we want for our futures and how to be assertive when making decisions. We laughed and danced. Oh how we danced feeling free uninhibited and alive. All of us together as a community as one and this is exactly what I dreamed of when I set out to Ethiopia 26 months ago. Some sholder shaking and shimmying to Tigrania music I convinced Brehana a local teacher an older woman helping out to get up and dance too. Shay I cannot dance to American music she clamined wha wha wha I said then I can’t dance to Tigrinia music, or eat injera or elbow my way on to a minibus. She laughed and eventually joined us all on the dance floor. She talked with me over breakfast about a Peace Corps teacher she had as a child almost 45 years ago. The funny American things she and her classmates learned and how much she loved Lori. She said one day Lori had them over for lunch and was teaching them how to brush their teeth without using sticks. She gave them Colgate and instead of brushing their teeth with it they started eating it. Why I asked. She smiled and said it tasted so sweet like mastica gum. We laughed and exchanged our apprection for one another. I hope I told her in 47 years my students will remember me too with the same love, appreciation and admiration you still have for Ms.Lori today. They will she said it is a guarentee she said confidently.
June 9 2014
Mystery meets magic
Theres tons of magic sewn into the culture and landscape of Ethiopia. I always wondered what drew people to Ethiopia when I saw a few rare backpackers defeated on occasion. I wondered what made you think you could do this in Ethiopia? You should have done your research I thought but maybe they did. Maybe the harsh people, 20 hour bus rides through the mountain passes, civil unrest and dusty lanscape were overcome by this sense of wonder and mystery that lives in the air here. This is the birthplace of humanity people believe, where Lucy was found, the source of The Nile River, the first mosque in Africa Negashi, the final resting place of The Ten Commandments in Axum and where coffee was discovered. I am starting to have this sort of calmness here to take a step back and look at this place with appreciative eyes as my time here winds down. Besides famine, malnutrition, adopition agencies, civil strife, gender inequality, sexual harassment and exploitive coffee industries theres lies an ancient past so deep and mysterous that moden day scholars have yet to crack the code. The unanswered questions of historical significance in a place that eats breathes and acts as though we are stuck in the ancient days of the bible is what makes Ethiopia so attractive and unique. Ethiopia (Tigray, the region where I live specifically) was once home to the ancient Axumite Empire connecting the Middle East to Africa by way of the Red Sea and The Gulf of Aden. It is believed that Queen Sheba of Axum met and made love to King Soloman of Israel. They had a child together creating Habesha a word meaning mixed race and in modern times is used to refer to Ethiopians. Their semetic faces, thin noses, and sometimes-straight hair mixed with black skin make them very unique. Ethiopia boasts the first pre-christan temple of the Sabean people in sub sarhan Africa and it is believed that Christianity came here after with the true Ark of the Covenant which lies nearby in Axum Ethiopia a short 3 hours west of my town. I have had the pleasure of celebrating the Ark (The 10 Commandments) on its annual holiday Mariem Tsion admist a crowd of thousands whailing church goers camped out side of the church where the ark is said to be held. In the dark the orange glow of candlelight illuminating the white sea of scarves is spellbinding even if you don’t believe in anything. The prayers and cries of devotion slide through the cold desert air. Everyone is barefoot covered in white cloth with staffs to walk and you do for a moment believe that you are living in the Bible. Yet the beggars eating scraps from the ground remind me personally that I don’t believe in anything. And I am jealous that they do.
My region of Ethiopia called Tigray is also famous for it’s Rock Hewn Churches as well. These chrurches were once secretive places of worship hidden inside massive hollowed out rockfaces high in the hills. They date between the 2nd Century and the 6th Century meaning they are some of the first and oldest churches in the world. Just a few days ago, some other volunteers came to my town to check out these famous holy houses of worship that are still used today. We took a 10 minute minibus ride got off where a small signpost on the road pointed us down a rocky path. We were in Tekka Tesfy a small village that I run to occasionally. Following the dusty rocky path we greeted locals covered in white cloth with walking sticks coming from Sunday morning pre-sunrise church. In front of us, hung a Cliffside church way up in the clouds. A six story rickety wooden ladder hung next to it as we admired it from afar.
The villagers began to gather unimpressed by our Tigrinia language skills they wanted us to climb up and in for 150 birr. Tourist aykonan abzi inibir I am not a tourist I live here I pleaded but you can not hide your white skin or control the dollar signs that flash in their eyes everytime they see a foreigner. The price 150 Birr is equaliviant to about $7.60 a person to enter. But for Peace Corps Volunteers that’s two to three weeks worth of grocery money a heafty price to pay to a 5 minute glance. But theres mystery inside I thought untold tales of ancient history that the secrets seemed to be calling my name. We didn’t enter because we are paid a local salary and honestly can’t afford it. Disappointed we hiked to another church in the cluster followed by some children and admired it from even closer this time. We got close and the smell of sua local beer came wafting out of a small hut near the gate to the church. I laughed asking the small children if this was a sua bet a beer house they giggled too agreeing that yes it was. Through the gate were two doors side by side allowing for woman to enter on one side and men on the other. The doors carved into the mountain, a rock hallowed out filled with carvings of crosses and paintings of Arabic-looking deciples I imagined. But again, we did not enter seeing as the price was too high. Lastly, we got to the third and final church, which we intended, on paying to enter. The guidebook said that this was the most impressive. And it was.
The name itself made me wonder what to expect. Marahnit Alem roughly translates to medicine of the world or if you want to speak religouiously healing of the world. The name remided me of this Jewish kabalisitic teaching called tikkun olem meaning the repair of the world. It’s the idea that the universe is in disarray and our job as human beings is to put the pieces back together and repair humanity by helping fellow man. I think it’s a cool philosophy. But anyway, would this church heal I wondered? I guess if you believe in something enough it could do whatever you think it could. If it did in fact heal then why were people camped outside sick with unanswered prayers?
We waited under a huge tree of about 30 minutes while some kids got the priest with the key. Some guys started sexually harassing me. I yelled at them then ignored them the rest of the time but I wouldn’t let it disrupt my peace today. The two old men came scurrying up the mountain twice as fast as we assended when we came up earlier. No matter how steep it was their pace didn’t change. We followed the men with their heads wrapped in white scarves up and up and up this sandy pathless rock face. We got to a wooden door and we removed our shoes and walked into a courtyard. Before us was a Cliffside with a door painted once brillient blues and reds that had been faded by the sun. We ducked a bit to fit through and came to another door this time hollowed out from the mountainside. The passageway was even smaller, maybe a head shorter then me. Sources say that this church was built in the second century, when Christianity was new. I wondered if the people were that much smaller then. Inside of what looked like a piece of rock from the outside was a magnificient cave with carvings of crosses and intricate patterns on the high domed ceiling. We could only see a faint hint of this because it was dark. The priest at first unimpressed with our language skills asked us for a flashlight. I handed him my phone. That’s not good enough he decided and said no no shamah allani I have a candle. He pulled out a long stick maybe 10 feet tall with a candle on the end and walked us through this magnificent piece of work. The ceilings were so high and decorated by patterened carvings. He put the candle way up high as far as his tiny arm could stretch and guided us through. It was so dark and damp. It smelled sweet and fresh. It was cool and kept the dusty desert air out. For a moment we were somewhere else. There were puddles of water occasionally. I walked and ran my hand across the magificant stone wondering whose hands chiseled the patterens into the huge pillars that I was now touching. This is so cool all of us kept repeating. This is so cool. It was quiet and peaceful and powerful. I thought about a lot while walking in the cave that meant so much to so many people here. I thought about everything I don’t believe and how isolating this can be. I refected on my life here and the lonliness amist scores of people. I thought about how brave I have been and the uncertainty that the next phase of my life holds. It was a peaceful calmness of a non-beliver overcome by this beautiful ancient piece of work. In this moment I was really happy.
Chirsitanity here would be unrecognizable to people in the west. It’s the most ancient form practiced in the world. If you want to know how Jesus or Moses lived, come to Ethiopia. Even this rock-hewn church looks different. There are no pews or chairs or beautiful colorful windows. People pray before sunrise by candle light meaning that they have to hike the scary cliff in the dark to show their devotion. There is a sheet covereing a back room with a replica of the Ten Commandments, which is in all Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. The real one is in Axum as I mentioned earlier. No one is allowed to see it. People fast to show their devotion to g-d meaning that for almost 2/3 of the year they do not consume any animal products. They are basically vegan no meat, no milk no eggs. I still can’t figure out exactly where this comes from. It’s all a mystery it’s all magic if you ask me. But maybe that’s part of the draw here. Yet, if you ask any Ethiopian it’s as real as the earth beneath your feet and as real as the scarce water being savored for every drop. There is no wavering in their faith no push in their convictions. Malnourshed and waterless in the harsh Tigray Desert ixabir yabaaly god will provide they tell me. So may it be so as I hope day after day for the rainy season to begin so the dust will settle and the tasty cactus fruit will flourish in my last months here. If these ancient churches are so impressive here I wonder what happened? What stopped the progress? What made Ethiopia fall so far behind? It’s a strange thing to think about but also a beautiful thing. This place is frozen in time in ancient history which here is alive today. It has all of the future to grow and change and shape itself into a better place for the next generations.
Why I Wear My Headscarf
When I was in middle school, flashes of people with turbans and headscarves covered the news alongside videos of crumbling buildings riffels being raised and bombs falling. The images conjured up deep feelings of patriotism in some and suddenly the neighborhood was draped in American Flags. I had trouble putting these puzzle pieces together. Yet, beauitiful flowing headscarves, turbans representing numerous religious ideologies and histories intrigued me.
Western women saw brief glipses, simply photos of Muslim women and deicded for them that wearing a headscarf or full hijab the black dresses only reveiling their eyes was oppressive. I feel so bad for them people claimed they can’t wear jeans or show their beautiful hair. The truth is we didn’t know these women, we didn’t know their culture and we spent time and energy feeling bad for what we didn’t know. People wear headscarves the same way people wear a Rosary, why men wear a yamika or tsit tsit, why some grasp prayer beads, religious jews wear wigs, why rastas style their hair in dreds, why church goers wear large funny hats or hindus have nose rings and tribal people have certain piercings. It’s their culture and their style. I worked with an Iraqi family in college back in America and grew to love this family of recently arrived Iraqi Refugees. Their meals were full of spices and tastes, memories of the land they so terribly missed. Luma’s headscarves were so powerfully radiant and beautiful. I was mezmorized. I watched her pray in the back room and felt jealous of her faith. I watched her cook in the kitchen wrapping up grape leaves and I watched her wrap her headscarf on occasion. I fell in love with her elegance, the mystery behind her dress and her passion for her g-d, her life her purpose even after the tragedy she endured. A similar thing has happenened here in Ethiopia. I love nutellas headscarves.
I started talking with friends and bringing up the question why do you wear a headscarf because I wanted to better explain my own appreciation for them and also be able to articulate this to my friends and family back home. Was I changing? Was I now suddenly quietly slipping into some subconscious oppressive acceptance? Was I wearing them because the church or mosque ordered it? Was I wearing a headscarf because I had to hide behind this veil of cloth over my head and sholders for the sake of protecting myself from over sex-crazed men? Was I that irrisistable? The answer to all of these questions is no. My harrassement level does not change whether I wear one or not because frankly they don’t have much to do with religion or conservative dress here. I surveyed my friends, kids, adults, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, rural people and city people asking them why they wear nutellas and these are the answers I got. I wear my nutella because it keeps my head dry when it’s raining, it keeps the wind off of me when it’s cold, I cover my ears when it’s cold and it acts as a rag to wipe my face. It covers my hair when I haven’t braided it, it’s Habesha Ethiopian fashion, I need it to do the traditional scarf to dance, it keeps the sun off of me, acts as a filter from dusty air, I use it to carry my baby on my back and cover him up when he’s sleeping, I cover my nose when it smells bad, I wear it to keep my hairdou in place and the butter in my hair from spreading. I wear them because they are beautiful. Because they are beautiful stuck in my mind as the one woman shook her head at me as she spoke this. Like duh, every Ethiopain woman knows this as if by asking this question I had undone my integration here and for this moment I was no longer an adopted Ethiopian woman. Don’t you think they are beautiful Shay? The woman questioned me. Yes I said they are konjo batammi! Beautiful, very beautiful I said with enthusiasm trying to recover from her suspicion. Do they wear these in America she asked? No, I responded showing her my scarf. I showed her the different ways we wear scarves as the child took his to imitate me. We practiced tying them all different ways it was fun and creative like we were fashion designers coming up with new trends. She taught me the “Muslim” way, the “Christian” way, and the “I’m sick with a tooth ache way”, the “I’m cold way”, the “I am in a rush” way and the “fancy wedding” way.
Though you need to wear a nutella here in Ethiopia to enter a church or mosque they are the picture of beauty, elegance, charm and fashion. I was raised Jewish and I wear a headscarf representing nothing more then my comfort and attachment to my Ethiopia. I am not any religion and I am not brainwashed, changed or limited in my freedoms. I like my headscarf– I choose to wear it. I occasionally hide behind it to blend in and cover my white skin the way grumpy teenagers in America wear hoodies and headphones when they don’t want to be bothered. What I have learned is that you do not liberate people by convincing them of their oppression. Now, there is much to be desired when it comes to gender quialty and rights in Ethiopia as you may have read in my previous blogs. But it’s not our job to convince people of these things. Our job is to be their friends and help people build up the courage to start their own conversations. Headscarves at least here in Ethiopia are not oppressive. The conversation on headscarves is interesting here actually if you just take the time to listen. They are the only physical things here in the village that people have access to that makes girls and women feel pretty…actually, headscarves and nail polish. They wear them with pride as fashion and with utlilty. I love wearing them too. They are a daily accessory and quite beautiful if you ask me. See for yourself.
I felt terrible on Wednesday last week. I had another type of bacterial infection in my GI. For me these happen every few months and, according to our PC doctor, affect 70% of volunteers worldwide, although I would have guessed it closer to 100%. In this publicly available blog, I’ll spare you the details, but for those of you who know me better, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to tell you all about my darkest, grossest, and humiliating shitting experiences later when I can tell you in person. I don’t know, but shit stories seem like something to share over beers, not post on this blog. What you need to know is that I spent a few days holed up in my house, eating bananas and biscuits, and never straying far from the shint bet (toilet). I even got seriously dehydrated, a first for me; I mean I’ve read…
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