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!