Destination Unknown

"Oh, well, men are climbing to the moon but they don't seem interested in the beating human heart." - Marilyn Monroe

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Epilogue: Everything is Normal, Everything is Different. Happy Coming Out Day.

My posts tapered off towards the end of my service because I was running around like a madwoman the last few months, trying to wrap things up and say goodbye. We held another summer camp (Camp GLOW) for high school girls; I worked with the environmental volunteer in my town to start a model garden for women with HIV; I helped one of the schools I’d worked with for World Handwashing day set up a station for kids to wash their hands. Life was busy for pretty much the first time. And just as all the activity was at its peak, it was time to say goodbye.

After traveling to Egypt and Turkey for a week, I came back to the U.S., did a little more traveling, and pretty quickly started grad school. I’m in a Masters of Public Affairs program, and it’s challenging my brain in a way it hasn’t been challenged in a long time.

Right now, I’m putting off writing about what I really wanted to say. Today is National Coming Out Day, and in that vein, I wanted to write about something I couldn’t while I was in Ethiopia: what it’s like being a gay Peace Corps Volunteer in a place where being gay is not only illegal, but looked upon as something abhorrent to the vast majority of people.

I’d been lucky throughout most of my adult life to be surrounded by people for whom my sexuality was, above all, no big deal. My immediate family was probably surprised, but never anything but supportive; I lived in big cities where I never encountered discrimination or intolerance. I was able to be myself everywhere I went.

Ethiopia was different. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when, about two days into our training in Addis, we had a session called “Coping with the Closet.” In sum: Welcome In. In Ethiopia, gay people are shunned; at worst, they’re killed. Homosexuality is illegal, and most Ethiopians don’t believe it exists in their country. Our physical safety and cultural integration depended entirely on our discretion, and that of any other PCVs with whom we chose to share our identities. Scary stuff.

It wasn’t that hard, at least at the beginning. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a bunch of other Peace Corps Trainees with whom I could be honest. I even started (discreetly) dating a fellow trainee, and that relationship survived for two years, despite the insane distance and unreliable communication. When I moved to site, I had some great PCV friends in and near my town, and their support was incredible. As part of my country’s Peer Support Network, I helped give the Coping with the Closet talk to subsequent groups of incoming trainees, and, I hope, was a resource for other gay volunteers.

The hardest part was that no matter how close I got to Ethiopian friends, I still had to hold back. Frankly, I lied all the time. I fabricated a boyfriend back home and said that we were getting married when I got back. I promised everyone I’d invite them to the wedding. I felt the worst with two women to whom I became particularly close; they’d confide in me, and I’d be lying about an essential part of who I am.

Being home has felt like I can exhale for the first time, but old habits are hard to shake. When I’m in a conversation and someone uses the word “gay,” I instinctively look over my shoulder to see if anyone’s overheard, forgetting I don’t have to worry about that anymore (after all, I’m in a state where gay marriage is legal, at least for now). I’m worried that Ethiopian friends are going to find this post and decide that they hate me for who I am, and that I’m not the person they knew me to be — or, worse, have a different perception of all Peace Corps Volunteers.

I wanted to write this post, anyway, despite the complex manipulations of my Facebook privacy settings it necessitated. I wanted other LGBT Americans who are thinking about doing the Peace Corps to know that we’re out there (even if we’re not “out” while we’re “there”), we’ve done it, and we’ve lived to tell the tale. As difficult as it was to jump into a closet for really the first time in my life, I wouldn’t trade this experience for two years of going to lesbian bars or kissing my girlfriend in public.

And we get to come home to a country that gets more tolerant and more equal by the second. You know why? Because people are starting to realize that when they discriminate against LGBT people, they’re not discriminating against abstractions: they’re standing in the way of their relatives, friends, and neighbors living full, loving, normal lives. People are realizing that it’s easier to hate an idea than it is to hate a daughter or granddaughter they’ve known since before she was born. People can think that gay marriage is icky, but John and Paul? That couple at the end of the block? They always bring that amazing barbecue chicken to the neighborhood festival, and of course they should be able to get married.

America is changing because we don’t feel we have to hide who we are, and we don’t feel we have to hide who we are because America is changing. It’s all spiraling up towards a more equal, more just, more loving society. And we get to be part of it.

Happy Coming Out Day. 

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Dream a little dream of me

Dream a little dream of me

"Did you have any good dreams?"

I was sitting with the health center’s lab tech, Melaku, while he prepared samples.

I told him the vague impressions I could remember from my dream the night before. “There was a church, and many of my friends were singing inside, but I wasn’t allowed in, along with another group of friends.”

"What do you think it means?" he asked. I offered a feeble interpretation about going home, and feeling excluded from people’s lives.

"What do you think it means?" I asked him.

"I don’t have any experience interpreting dreams," he said. He explained that in Oromo culture, it’s elderly people who do that job. "It happens at the buna ceremony, especially in the mornings. Neighbors come together, and one offers his dream. The elderly people discuss it and predict what will happen in the future. If they are right, the person who shared his dream will boil coffee and invite them to announce that their prediction came true."

I might not have time to make this happen before I leave, but it’s a nice reminder that two years in I’m still learning new things.

Filed under peace corps ethiopia oromo dreams ethiopian culture

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Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky I am. This weekend, though, the wedding of my counterpart to my favorite health extension worker reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am - to be in Peace Corps, to have amazing friends, and, yes, to be in Ethiopia.

When I found out that Brihan (my counterpart, who is intelligent, motivated, and has a great sense of humor) was going to marry his long-time girlfriend Aster (a self-assured, incredibly bright young woman), I was stoked. Even though I don’t understand most of what they say to each other (Amharic is their primary language of communication), you can tell just by watching them how much love and mutual respect underlies their relationship.

Then, Aster told me I’d be part of the mize, the bridal party. I thought she was joking, at first. She wasn’t. As has become the norm for me, I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but decided to go along with it anyway. (Is this a habit that will help me when I’m back in America, or is it a recipe for disaster?)

I’ve written before about the extensive preparation that goes into a wedding. I joined a bunch of the couple’s female friends and neighbors on Friday, primarily chopping onions and washing out old glass soda bottles that looked like they’d been in circulation since the reign of Haile Selassie (Has anyone in Ethiopia seen a Fanta bottle with a blue label?), which were then filled with a non-alcoholic honey drink called brrz. (Maybe there are vowel sounds in there, but it doesn’t feel like it.) On Satuday, I arrived a little late to help make the wat (that is, the meat stew), but the one Muslim woman who was helping had left by the time they added the salt, so they needed me to taste the Muslim stew to make sure they put enough in.

Then, it was round one of the wedding. People started showing up at noon for lunch. After I ate, I went home to change out of jeans and into a dress, then came back to hang out and help where I could. I spent time with some coworkers who were boiling buna, then was happy to help them drink it. I poured water for people to wash their hands, and cleared and washed some dishes. Mostly, though, I got to hang out with friends and neighbors.

The rain had loomed ominously around Mettu for most of Saturday afternoon, but it waited until the evening to hit. When I showed up at the couple’s house on Sunday morning, it was incredibly muddy. After eating a little breakfast (leftovers from the day before), I went with Aster to the beauty shop. I chatted with the hairdressers while they pinned fake curls onto her pulled-back hair. Aster said I was going to have my hair done to match the other bridesmaids, but the hairdressers decided that it looked fine as it was. I tried not to show my relief.

We went back to the house and got dressed, but we were running late. I quickly donned my bridesmaid dress, which was a modern take on a traditional Ethiopian style. Of course, 30 seconds before we were leaving, one of the very kind women who had been feeding guests as they arrived shoved a plate into my hands and insisted I have some food before the long journey. I had barely begun eating when the bridal party started leaving the house. I licked my fingers, threw on my hiking boots, and ran after them.

Of course, when we got to the nearest main road, the bus that was going to take us to the rural area hadn’t arrived yet, so we stood around waiting for it for a while. I had time to run home, use the bathroom, and wash the rest of the wat off of my hands. While we waited for the bus, we clapped and sang spiritual songs (well, I clapped, anyway, and joined in with the chorus when I could). Protestants in Ethiopia are forbidden from singing and dancing except in praise of God, so while we were with the couple, everyone refrained. On the bus, though, while Aster and Brihan were riding in a separate vehicle, their friends of different religions let loose a bit. We sang some Ethiopian wedding songs and even danced in the aisles.

About 10km outside of Suphee, we caught up to the car Brihan and Aster were riding in, which had pulled over to the side. We all got out, a little confused — was this our destination? I asked Aster. “The road disappeared, but there’s another car waiting for us on the other side,” she said. Disappeared? I thought. I turned around, and, sure enough, there was a huge hole where the road apparently used to be. It was as if Carmen Sandiego had come and just snatched it right out of the ground.

We trekked through about a kilometer of woods, then met a pickup truck on the other side. It took the bridal party, the soda, the mosoob, and the sheep Brihan brought. (The groom brings the bride’s family a white sheep as a sign of respect. Brihan informed me that because it’s wedding season, now that Ethiopian Lent is over, white sheep fetch a premium at the market.) The plan was for the other guests to start walking, and the pickup would return to drive them the rest of the way.

We’d nearly arrived at the turnoff to Aster’s house, after which we’d have to go by foot, when the truck came to a stop. Not one, but both of its back tires blew. We waited around for a bit, but when the remaining guests started arriving, we decided to walk the rest of the way. Some loitering kids were recruited to carry the heavy stuff, and we continued down the muddy road, across a soccer field, and between farms to Aster’s family’s home.

When we arrived, singing songs that thanked God for bringing us together, the first order of business was to kill the sheep so that it could be eaten that day. It was pretty gruesome. One of the groomsmen was splattered with a lot of blood (though as it turns out, he’s a doctor specializing in emergency medicine, so I’m sure he’s used to it). Then we entered the house and greeted Aster’s parents and the other elder friends and relatives. We ate our first lunch of doro wat (chicken), k’ai wat (spicy meat), and alicha wat (mild meat). As I was finishing up my food, a friend from Mettu asked me when I was going to go make the t’ibs from the sheep, because that’s the job of the bridal party. I laughed, and said to her husband, “She’s joking, right?”
"No, it’s our culture!"
I turned to the other bridesmaids. “Really?”
They nodded.
Then Brihan chimed in. “Traditionally, it is the mize’s job to make the t’ibs.”
"Are you all in on this joke?"
They weren’t, and we started talking about whether I could do it if I needed to. T’ibs is really just meat sauteed with onions, hot peppers, oil, butter, and sometimes some rosemary. One of the women vouched for my onion chopping abilities, and we decided I could at least help the other two. We headed back to the kitchen, but the women in Aster’s family assured us that they had it under control. So we hung out for a bit, then returned to our seats.

One of the groomsmen read the marriage certificate aloud, and the couple exchanged rings. Once that was all taken care of, everyone seemed to relax a little bit. We took some pictures, and the bride’s family and friends presented gifts to the couple. The gifts were cash and household items, including an electric stove, a wide assortment of cooking pots, drinking glasses, plates, and various injera holders. One of Aster’s brothers bought them a refrigerator!

Next, it was time for round two of food. This time, though, the food was served on communal platters and the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Everyone was encouraging each other to eat, and feeding each other bites of food by hand (a tradition called gursha; it shows love and respect). I had a little 11-year-old sitting next to me who fed me progressively larger bites until I caught onto her game; everyone at the table was laughing about it as I struggled to swallow the final one.

As we finished the t’ibs, one of Aster’s relatives laid a new piece of injera and scooped some more wat on our plate, and one of the elders gave a blessing. He fed the couple, then her parents, then the friends who were representing Brihan’s family. Each in turn fed the groom and the bride. Then the same thing happened for the mize; the elder fed each of us, then we fed the couple. “It is a way of sharing the blessing,” Brihan explained.

It was about 5:30 by the time we left, carrying gifts (including the refrigerator) and empty soda bottles. This time, we were in a vehicle that took the long way around, through a town called Algee, on a road that still existed. Driving with a group of people in good spirits as the sun and a sliver of the moon both set in the west, I felt a sense of belonging that’s hard to find in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. I felt like I was a part of something. And I am.

(Pictures to follow, once I figure out how to get them off of Kim’s camera!)

Filed under ethiopian culture peace corps ethiopia wedding

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Snapshot: Breakfast

Most days after aerobics class I go to Samson and Meskerem’s little cafe for breakfast. The couple has been operating the restaurant for a little under a year now, and they serve my favorite breakfast food in Ethiopia, fuul.

I walk up to the front of the restaurant and start to wash my hands; as I do, Samson spots me and says good morning (Akkam bulte? Fayya dha?). Is there fuul? I ask. Nowadays, the answer is always yes; at 7:15 I’m one of the first customers of the morning. By 9:00, when most people have gone to school or work, they’re almost always sold out.

Samson conveys my order to Meskerem, whom I rarely see. While he works the front, she’s in the narrow kitchen at the side of the shop, scrambling eggs, mixing beans and sauce, or chopping up and frying injera to make fir fir. It’s basically a lean-to attached to the corrugated metal building; the total space is about the size of my house, which is 3x4 meters. “One special fuul for Joanna.” The identity of the customer is important here; if it’s Kim, she prefers her fuul without raw peppers and onions on top.

I take a seat at one of the stools in the front of the shop; chairs, two tables, and some tarp make an improvised veranda on the dirt. It can get crowded inside, and I’m usually still sweating from the aerobics, so outside is better.

The fuul arrives in a few minutes, steaming hot. Meskerem’s fuul is some of the spiciest (and most delicious) I’ve had, so I almost always get “special fuul,” which means that the beans in a tomato and berbere sauce are topped with a few scrambled eggs. The eggs help to neutralize some of the spice.

I devour my fuul, using pieces of bread to scoop up bites. Fuul is always served in a shallow metal dish that has been placed directly on the fire, typically atop a saucer-like metal plate. You can tilt the metal plate to keep from spilling your fuul as you scoop, but the bowl will most certainly burn your fingers. The bowl goes directly on the fire because the two main components of the dish, beans and sauce, are usually prepared separately in advance; when someone orders fuul, they’re fried up together so it comes out fresh and hot. Often, the bottom of the fuul will get a little bit crusty because of the heat. This is almost always the most delicious part.

When there’s nothing left to scoop, I pay the bill - 10 birr, or 11 if I’ve had tea - and head home. What a delicious way to start the day.

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The Whirlwind Tour: Ethiopia in Six Days

imageMy brother, Tom, and sister-in-law, Emily, came to visit last month. It was great timing - while the end of my service is approaching rapidly (only 16 weeks to go!), I was in a place in my service where things felt stagnant. Our whirlwind tour of Ethiopia was not only a ton of fun, but also really wore me out - which made coming back to site a welcome rest. Now it feels good to be back, and I really have a handle on the things I want to accomplish before I go home.

The two intrepid travelers arrived on a Thursday. Unfortunately, I was doing a training all day, but they explored Addis Ababa on their own. They drove past the various palaces that are currently in use, and got to see the interior of the one on the campus of Addis Ababa University that is currently serving as an ethnographic museum. They also checked out the National Museum, which will be the home of Lucy when she returns to Ethiopia this summer. I got to meet them for a drink later at their hotel, Bole Rock, which is a lovely and relatively inexpensive option near the airport. We went out for dinner to a restaurant that serves primarily food, so their first real meal in Ethiopia was Mexican food.

The next day, we took a morning flight to Bahir Dar, a resort city in Amhara. There we explored the Martyrs’ Memorial, where the grounds, museum, and art gallery are dedicated to those who died fighting the Derg, the military junta that overthrew the imperial government in 1974 and stayed in power until the 1991. In the afternoon, we stopped for a fresh juice before heading out onto the waters of Lake Tana for a boat tour. The boat - a rickety old thing with a too-small motor - took us to the monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret, which has a lovely little 16th-century church, the interior of which is covered with vivid paintings of biblical scenes and saintly deeds. One of my favorite paintings shows Mary and Joseph fleeing from Herod with the newborn baby Jesus — and of course, they bring along their traditional injera holder.

Our next stop was the source of the Nile, where we cruised around a bit looking for hippos (no luck) before stopping for tea and coffee in the cutest little tea house you’ve ever seen. It was covered in papyrus and the grassy smell combined with the burning incense was lovely. A clap of thunder and gusting winds hurried us back to the boat, but our driver didn’t seem to concerned, so we took a little detour to see some pelicans before heading back to shore. He seemed to want to make up for the lack of hippos.

That evening, we enjoyed some misur wot, asa dulet (a kind of sauteed fish), and fish gulash (little bits of deep-fried fish with a tomato sauce and peppers). Unfortunately, this appears to have been a mistake.

The next day we headed to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, but Tom was looking greener and greener. He powered through an afternoon of sightseeing before he resorted to lying on the bed of our hotel room, moaning quietly to himself. The following 48 hours were a gastrointestinal journey for all of us. We survived the plane ride to Addis, but decided that making the trip to visit my host family, our original plan, just wasn’t in the cards. Instead, the driver we’d hired picked us up at the airport and we spent the night in Debre Zeit, a little getaway spot with some crater lakes just about an hour south of Addis.

The next day, we drove through the incredibly diverse landscape of the Rift Valley, stopping for lunch in Hawassa. There, we saw gigantic, incredibly scary birds that either deliver or steal babies — it’s unclear. That afternoon, we went to Wando Ganet, a town that boasts holy hot springs and some hiking. We hiked, we soaked, and we drank a lot at the crappy but only hotel near the springs.

The next day, we made our way back to Addis, stopping at a resort on Lake Langano for a soda. We got a little driving tour of Addis, going around Mexico Square, through Piazza, and past St. George’s. Our last meal was a cultural extravaganza at Yod Abyssinia, a restaurant that features different styles of dancing and music from around the country.

Overall, despite our little illness-caused delay, we had a really lovely time and saw some amazing birds and landscapes. I’m so lucky that my entire immediate family made the trek out here! They’re the biggest part of what I miss in America — although cheese comes in a close second.

Filed under peace corps family ethiopia visiting ethiopia

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No Leotard, No Problem

Mettu is quiet at 6:30am. The sun is still just below the horizon, starting to give the sky a pink glow. The people who are awake are mostly women, cooking injera in smoky kitchens. A few people are out delivering bread to tiny shops well off the main road or heading to the bus station.

Down one narrow alleyway, though, the lights are on and the music is turned up. In the martial arts studio of Abubakar, a spacious, mostly empty building with a cement floor elevated into a stage at one end, about ten people are bouncing around to the frantic beat as Abubakar calls out moves. It’s part kickboxing, part step aerobics, and part dancing - but entertaining through and through.

I was never big on exercise when I lived in America except in ways that seemed incidental - playing rugby was fun, and exercise was just a necessary side effect. Biking to work was just the fastest way. Since living in Ethiopia, though, my opportunities for accidental exercise have decreased, and so I’ve had to make a conscious effort to move my body. For a while, I was running and lifting filled water bottles that substituted for weights on alternating days and feeling pretty good about my fitness.

The last time I did aerobics was to this Cher video, in the 90s.When my sitemate Kim asked me to join her for Abubakar’s class, I was a little wary. Aerobics? Me? I had a mental image, and it was not good. Kim gave me that look that means, “But we need to stick together!” and I caved. I’m glad I did.

As it turns out, my skill level in the class is average, and I’m far from the most interesting character in the class. Let me break it down for you:

Michael Jackson: There’s a guy who comes every day and parks himself front and center. He gets every move right away, and when I’ve missed a step or skipped a beat I look to him to get back on track — as does everyone else in the class. Oh, and he does the whole thing looking graceful and upbeat, while the rest of us look like we’re climbing Ras Dashen blindfolded.

The Three Stooges: One man, enough blundering for three. He’s always enthusiastic — to the point where he’s bumping into the people on either side of him. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was faking just for the laughs.

Dhalsim - the king of stretch himselfDhalsim: Remember that character in Street Fighter who could stretch his arms and legs forever in any direction? He’s in the class. Just take away the head paint and jewelry and add a beard. Our Dhalism practices his martial arts moves after class - just make sure you give him a wide berth.

The rest (all men, except Kim and I) come and go, but these three, along with the constantly-rotating lineup of techno songs and Abubakar’s encouragement keep it lively.

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Work without much Work: Sustainability in Action with Club GLOW

I wrote a few months ago about our amazing summer camp in Nekemte. Since the school year began, the girls we took to camp have been running a club here in town for their peers. Although Kim, Ashley, and I show up each week, our role is simple: make sure they have the materials they need, review the lesson plans, and watch while we beam with pride.

This past week, during the school break, the girls had a two-day program to close out the semester. When we got together to plan it, I was expecting to help them make a schedule and assign roles, suggesting other activities along the way. To my pleasant surprise, they showed up with a schedule already in hand, including who would run each session on leadership, communication, HIV and STIs, and planning for the future. As a group, we added some games to spice things up and made a list of the supplies they’d need.

The mini camp was really, really fun. Twelve girls came for all four sessions, and a few others flitted in and out. The girls let me help out with the HIV activity, and I did a condom demonstration using, to everyone’s entertainment, a broom handle as my model. At the end of the second day, 7 of the girls said they’d learned something new about HIV; 12 had increased their knowledge of STIs. Nine learned new things about leadership and ten said they had new goal-setting skills.

I do have a little work to do now: in addition to writing up the report (we got some financial assistance from Peace Corps [855 birr, or a little under $50, for those of you who are interested], so gotta submit those receipts!) I’m going to write up lesson plans for all of the sessions the girls did this semester and try to secure the club a locker at the school where they can keep their supplies so that this thing can keep going.

Looking around the room during the mini camp, I knew that if I did nothing else in my Peace Corps service, here was something I’d done well. By bringing these girls to camp and encouraging them to keep it going in their community, I’d made a little mark on my town. Luckily, though, this isn’t it! Six more months, and several more projects to wrap up. And…go!

Filed under peace corps ethiopia girls empowerment life skills

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Gexee, my first Afaan Oromo teacher, was my second, self-proclaimed Ethiopian mom. During my first few months here, we spent six and a half hours a day together, plowing through the language one-on-one. It was exhausting and intense, and when the training staff switched our teachers on us, I nearly cried.

Sometimes we’d get so exhausted in class that she’d decided we needed a break, and we’d stroll around town. Ethiopians walk pretty slowly, but even so, Gexee was exceptional; you’d need a stop-motion shot to even tell that she was moving forward. I’d do my best to keep pace. We’d get some fresh air, try to find Afaan Oromo speakers with whom I could practice, and then head back to the classroom. Gexee always encouraged me to keep going, praised my progress, and helped mitigate my frustrations. She was like that one teacher everyone seemed to have in high school who was notoriously tough, but years later everyone talked about how amazing that class was and how it shaped their lives. Luckily, being an adult, I was able to recognize her at the time for what she was: just an awesome teacher.

Since that summer, she’d moved up in the Peace Corps world, getting a job as a program assistant for the education program. I’d thought many times that I should call her to say hi, but was looking forward to going to Addis in March, when I knew I’d see her and be able to show what the amazing base she’d given me in learning Afaan Oromo had allowed me to achieve.

It wasn’t meant to be, though. Gexee died suddenly last week. I never took the chance to really thank her for being such an amazing teacher and friend, but I hope that somewhere out there, she knows how grateful I am that I had the chance to know and learn from her.

Filed under peace corps ethiopia teachers

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I guess 18 months of spicy food and coffee finally caught up with me…

In the past, I’ve poo-pooed my Ethiopian friends’ and neighbors’ insinuations that foreigners can’t handle their spicy food. A recent illness made me realize that maybe I do have to take it easy on the spice…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few weeks ago, I woke up with a weird pain in my side. It felt like a side stitch, and I didn’t think much of it. It persisted throughout the day, though, and radiated to my shoulder, and so that evening a friend and I did what any person with internet access does when they’re feeling ill: googled it. The Mayo Clinic’s symptom checker came up with a scary list of possibilities, including infections of various expendable organs. I called the Peace Corps medical duty phone and explained my symptoms. The doctor told me to take some ibuprofen for the pain, get some sleep, and go to the hospital in the morning.

I waited in the hot, urine-scented hospital waiting room for an hour before a staff member noticed me and, against my protests, ushered me to the front of the line. This kind of thing is a common occurrence in Ethiopia, where guest culture means that a foreigner waiting, standing, or unfed is unacceptable. I always feel guilty, but my objections have rarely been successful. I was in a lot of pain and tired of being told to tabadhuu, so I was even less vehement than usual. I paid my five birr registration fee and I moved on to the next (outdoor) waiting area. Another hour went by before my name was called.

The doctor, shadowed by two medical students, asked me what was wrong, and I told him it hurt my side and shoulder when I breathed in, and it was worse when I coughed or laughed. “Why are you laughing? You should be more serious,” he tried to joke. I smiled feebly. He showed me to the examining table and poked around at my abdomen. “Do you have a fever?” he asked. I expressed my uncertainty, since I didn’t have a thermometer. We went back to his desk, where he wrote in my chart:

  • Hurts when smiling
  • Anorexic
  • Intermittent fever

I need to get my hands on that chart before I leave Ethiopia. For the record, I’m the same weight I was when I got here, give or take a kilo. Not sure where bullet point #2 came from.

He told me he suspected a gallbladder infection, and sent me for blood work and an x-ray. These services cost 15 and 20 birr, respectively. I paid at the cashier, had my blood drawn at the lab, then moved on to radiology area. A grumpy old man took my name and receipt, then showed me into the room that housed the machine. It looked like something out of Lost. At his instruction, I removed my top and my bra and stood against the panel while he aimed what looked like an overhead projector with crosshairs at my chest. It was cold and embarrassing. I got dressed and went out to wait for the slide to develop. He told me it would be 20 minutes, but called me in after only a few. As it turns out, he aimed wrong, and needed to take another x-ray, this time of my abdomen. We repeated the whole chilly, embarrassing procedure, this time without pants, too. Luckily I was able to keep on my undies, or I probably would have cried.

When my x-rays were developed, I collected my lab results on the way back to the doctor. He glanced at the chemical and visual depictions of my body’s state and pronounced them normal, but said I should come back after lunch to get an ultrasound. I was surprised — both that it was lunch time already (a whole morning gone!) and that they even have an ultrasound machine — but agreed to return soon.

I met up with two of my sitemates for lunch and buna, and they accompanied me to the hospital. We waited. The doctor appeared at one point to tell me he was waiting for the surgeon to be available so we could all chat. I thanked him; when he walked away, my friends and I looked at each other, aghast. “Surgeon?” There was no way anyone at this hospital was going to see my insides without an x-ray machine.

After another hour of waiting, the doctor reappeared. The ultrasound machine was broken (no way!), but the surgeon had one at the private clinic where he works nights. I should go there in the evening.

I went home and watched some mindless television for a bit before it was time to visit the clinic. There, Dr. Makkonen gelled up my belly and pushed and prodded at my internal organs — gallbladder, stomach, spleen, appendix, liver, and kidneys. He pointed them out as they came up on the monitor, and pronounced them all normal. He said i probably had accute gastritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach lining. He prescribed antacid and told me to avoid buna, shay, and spicy foods until I felt better, which could take over a week. And did.

I did some more research on the ever-enlightening internet and found that there were more foods I should avoid: refined grains, peanuts, palm oil, cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes, fatty meats, garlic, onions, chocolate and milk. So I spent the next week trying to behave myself, eating only whole grains, legumes, and bananas. I wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick, and my stomach was back to normal in time for me to splurge a little with Christmas treats. Lesson learned: no more 5-buna days for this PCV.

Filed under ethiopia peace corps health food

3 notes &

Biyya Bartani: They came; they saw; they reflected.

One of the most common questions people asked about my parents while they were here was biyya bartani? (“they learned the country?”) — meaning, have they gotten to know it a bit? As evidenced by this beautiful reflection on their visit, my mom certainly did:

The countryside and the mountains are beautiful in Ethiopia. If Van Gogh had painted “Starry night” in Ethiopia, the stars would have jumped off the canvas. We had the opportunity to see historic wonders: churches and castles from the beginning of time; we crossed the Nile River; saw the blue Nile falls and crossed Lake Tana in a tumultuous boat ride to see an historic monastery and museum located on an island and on the way back searched for hippos. We saw monkeys (up close), the most beautiful landscapes, but the best site of all was seeing our lovely daughter. More about this later.

Buna!! What an experience! It raised coffee drinking to a whole new level and reminded me that coffee is meant to be shared. Observing the effort that goes into making it (with pride and love; the special cups; the incense and the green branches and usually served in a very humble setting) all made for a memorable experience.

I enjoyed the food a lot. I did not overeat but yet felt full, I especially liked misur wot,  fuul, popcorn, injera, all the other delicious breads, and avocado juice. Having some of this food prepared and served by people who are an important part of Joanna’s life made it taste even better. I appreciated that many times eating Ethiopian food really resulted in sharing a meal.

I had no idea how much the Peace Corps volunteers work to become part of their community. The challenges they face everyday just to travel or accomplish various projects and to deal with environmental issues is truly incredible. But when they do this work, or talk about their work, they never seem to focus on what challenges they face or what they are giving up to be there. I have so much respect for all of them and the work they do. They inspired me to try to do good in my own little corner of the world and to try harder to see the good in others.

Most of the Ethiopian people have very little in the way of material goods, but yet they are very willing to share what they have. Many of the people we met seem very happy. Being welcomed into the homes of Joanna’s host family and the homes of her friends and neighbors was such an absolutely wonderful feeling and one I will never forget. All these people seemed so loving and caring. Many shouted “congratulations Joanna!” because her parents were visiting. It was great to meet the people we had heard stories about and it was a good experience to see the health center.

Some of the sadder images were those that involved women. We saw women walking with heavy sticks on their backs and other women carrying pallets of stones. Those images were startling. Before the trip, I did not understand that this was a male-dominated society nor did I understand what poverty looks like. But there are things in Ethiopia that I didn’t expect to see such as satellite dishes and a place where you could get photos developed and a store where you could purchase nail polish. The children and animals do run freely. It was difficult to understand the children running around unsupervised and being expected to sell goods outside of the bus station.

While I was waiting for Jim to pay the hotel bill, a little boy of 3 showed me his treasures: a bottle cap; the plastic from around a sealed water bottle; a pen and a stone. That image has stayed with me and I know I will be thinking about him over the holidays.

I was impressed because even though the roads are dirt roads and the terrain often rocky and uneven, people who have government jobs and those who are teachers, take pride in their appearance and dressed in professional clothes for work. They also seemed proud of their work, even though the teachers make hardly anything in terms of wages. People do not own irons but their clothes look crisp and wrinkle free.

There is an absence of quiet in Ethiopia: The call to prayer, every animal and his comrade conversing for hours.
Joanna has changed so much. Her knowledge of the language is incredible and her ability to deal with difficult situations is remarkable. She is a strong, resourceful woman.
I know she values her alone time but she gives that up to interact more with the people of her community. A definite role reversal took place during this trip as Joanna was the parent and we followed her instructions and asked an infinite number of questions like children. It was a surprise to me that the PVCs do not stay out after dark but with the lack of lighting, and the male dominated society, this makes sense.

Something that has not changed about Joanna is her exterior and interior beauty. At one point I said to her “I forgot how beautiful you are.” Hearing the locals call out to her by name made us think that we had given her the perfect name for the melodic way it flows from the Ethiopian tongue. She gave me the best birthday ever by encouraging me to read to school aged kids and making me a chocolate cake and a surprise party. Joanna’s comfort level peaked when we arrived in Metu. She takes pride in Metu.
She is loved and protected by the people there — PVCs and Ethiopians alike — and that brought us such relief and joy. We are so impressed by all the good work she performs.

The CBC doctor who administered our inoculations had warned, “Stay healthy, so you can easily deal with the conditions your daughter is living in.” Joanna’s place is small but lovely. Seeing the place she lives in reminded me that with love and care you can make a house a home.

Then there were all the other lessons learned:

The outstanding work of the Peace Corps and how it leads to better global understanding.

What it is like to watch the United States presidential results in a third world country.

How little I take an interest in what is going on in other countries and how that needs to change.

The importance of the love of family and friends

What it feels like to be stared at because you look different.

Patience and it is fine not to always be in control.

Americans can survive the goat bus.

The kindness of strangers.

Everyone wants to learn and to be of value to society. Acknowledging people makes them feel special.

Water is a valuable resource that should never be taken for granted.

The conveniences we have and how we take them for granted. I complain when I have laundry to do, but I very rarely need to hand wash anything or use a stick as an agitator. We have good roads; good infrastructure; running, clean water, reliable access to health care, the internet, many life choices, outstanding libraries and wonderful homes.

Banana man does exist.

My admiration for my daughter has multiplied.

Filed under peace corps ethiopia peace corps parents