Many people back home have asked me what a typical day is like here. It’s impossible to answer that question: as many have said before and will say again, there is no typical day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. So I’m going to chronicle three different days over the next few weeks, and we’ll call them The Good, The Mediocre, and The Ugly.
Since my parents are on vacation, we’ll start out with The Ugly, which was last Thursday. I’ll just hope they’re too busy enjoying one of my favorite cities to check out my blog.
A PCV from a smaller, neighboring town (Chelsea, from the rabid dog adventure) spent the night here so she could catch an early bus. I’m not great at sharing beds, but I was sleeping pretty well until about 4:30 a.m., when my neighbors’ roosters — brought this week by their family from the rural area — woke up. For security, they spend the night in the house, and it basically sounded like they were in the bed with us. I put in my earplugs, but they couldn’t drown out the noise. I tossed and turned until Chelsea left at 6, wrote a little, then tossed and turned again until about 8. Still tired, but finally accepting that I couldn’t sleep with the roosters taking turns belting out to high heaven, I got dressed and went across the street to buy some bread, then came back and ate my breakfast — bread with Laughing Cow cheese and a cup of tea — with my Kindle to keep me company.
I left my house at about 9 and went to the town health office for the first time since I’d returned from a little vacation to Bahir Dar. We chatted about my trip, and I confirmed I’d be teaching an English class at 4 p.m.
Then we talked about insecticide-treated nets (ITN). ITNs are crucial in combatting malaria, as the type of mosquito that transmits the disease only bites from dusk until dawn. My town had recently gotten a shipment of 15,200 new bed nets, and I had been working with them to coordinate a training that would take place before they were distributed. The training, provided by a communications NGO, was designed to ensure the bed nets were delivered door-to-door, hung up properly, and maintained. It even had a monitoring and evaluation component, with surveys before and one year after distribution, all without any cost to the town. We’d been going back and forth for weeks, and I thought that before I left we’d settled on having the training this week.
As it turns out, they went ahead and distributed the bed nets while I was gone, which made the training moot. I was disappointed, but, almost one year into my service, unsurprised.
I moved on. I went to see someone in the Office of Youth and Sports, who helps Kim and I get girls to attend our girls’ club meetings on Sundays. We had a cup of coffee and chatted about the club, which had been suspended a few weeks due to holidays, travel, and events at the youth center that hosts us.
My next stop was to visit my tutor, Rahel, at the high school. On the way, I was going to stop at my favorite coffee shop to see if my friend and counterpart, Brihan, was there. As I approached, though, I noticed a man with a wide-open shirt in front of the place crouching on the edge of the newly-constructed gutter. It immediately struck me as wrong: Ethiopians hate sitting on stone or concrete, or on the ground, or basically on anything that isn’t a chair or mattress. I gave crouching man a wide berth. Sure enough, he was mumbling to himself. When he saw me, he grabbed a handful of stones from the road and threw them in my direction. Luckily, none of them had much force behind them. He flailed in my direction, but the people at the coffee place hissed at him to go away. As I walked away (relatively calmly, but quickly, to be sure), he threw a last stone in my direction, but missed.
I met Rahel at the high school and, still a little breathless, told her what had happened. “I think I know the man,” she said. “He was a teacher, but he’s addicted to chat [a narcotic leaf that’s legal, and common, to chew in Ethiopia] and sometimes becomes mad.” We lightheartedly discussed how most of the crazy men in town seem to be former teachers.
We had a lovely conversation as we sat and drank some coffee (cups two and three; after we’d finished our first, a friend of Rahel’s treated us to a second). I gave her a souvenir I picked up in Bahir Dar. Then, unbidden, another teacher came over and interrupted our conversation.
He started out by asking what my “mission” was here. I told him about Peace Corps’ three goals, but his sardonic smile told me he wasn’t really interested in what I had to say. “I don’t trust foreigners,” he told me. “You have a specific mission here.” I rolled my eyes a bit, and pointed out that he shouldn’t paint people with such broad strokes.
“You don’t trust all foreigners? That’s a big generalization,” I said. “Even if some foreigners are untrustworthy, you don’t know me. What if I generalized about all Ethiopians based on the man who threw rocks at me on my way here?”
“He did that because you knew that by coming here, you would put him in his grave.”
I stood up. “I don’t want to be in a conversation with someone who has such a low opinion of me, but doesn’t even know me.” I started to walk away, and Rahel put her arm around me. I lost it. I just burst into tears. I was so angry and frustrated at this complete jerk, and the guy who’d thrown the rocks, and the roosters that had kept me from sleeping, that I just couldn’t control my emotions. My tears prompted Rahel to get emotional, too, which made it a bit of a scene. He retreated to the other side of the teachers’ lounge.
After I calmed down, he returned (joy). “I didn’t mean to say that was right. Violence is not the answer. But neither are tears.” I wanted to punch him.
I sat calmly while he went on about how America’s presence in African and Middle Eastern countries has had, shall we say, mixed results. “We don’t need aid, we need human rights.” I’m not sure what he wanted me to say. I pointed out that was something only Ethiopians can change. “We don’t need wheat, or maize, or teff, we need political freedom.” I pointed out that he was employed, and so maybe the people who couldn’t feed their families would have a different opinion. “If anyone speaks out against the government, they can go to jail.” And clearly, that was my fault. We sat and listened to him, making snide remarks, until I got tired of him cutting off Rahel whenever she tried to contribute to the conversation or dispute something he said, and then we left.
On the way out of the high school, Rahel and I joked that in a few years, he’d just be another crazy teacher on the streets of the town.
I went home. My neighbor, Seena, was busy preparing food outside with her sister-in-law. It took me a minute, but I realized what they were doing: making doro wot. I looked at the place where the roosters are tied up during the day, and realized the crowing would be down 50 percent. I couldn’t help but smile. Seena invited me in to hang out with her baby. I held little Bethlehem (pictured here in all her adorableness) for a minute as she woke up from her nap, then tickled her feet and told her how pretty she is while she had an early lunch.
While I heated up my own lunch, I cleaned my house with a vengeance, replaying the conversation with the teacher in my mind, mumbling the pithy comebacks I would have delivered if I could do it again. “Part of my job is cultural exchange. In America, people have conversations that involve both people talking. Is it different in Ethiopia, or are you just an asshole?” BURN. “You’ll have to excuse me, you’re boring the crap out of me.” ZING. “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Your English must be poor.” OOOO. “Rahel, remember that time we were having a nice conversation and someone interrupted us to insult both of us to our faces?” EAT IT.
The stewing calmed me down a bit, and I went to the Health Center to say hello and see if my counterpart was there. On the way, I saw a woman selling an unfamiliar fruit on the side of the road. I asked what it was, and she told me, but I didn’t recognize the word. She told me it was sweet. I asked how much. She told me to take it, it was free. I thanked her, and couldn’t stop smiling at how quickly a small gesture of kindness could turn my day around.
I got to the Health Center and my counterpart wasn’t there, so I called him. He was in a meeting, so I called my buddy Miserak, who works the night shift at the Health Center. We met up, got some buna (cup #4), and then I followed her from shop to shop while she looked for a birthday dress for her 1-year-old. We stopped for a juice, and chatted in English and Afaan Oromo. We went back to the town health office so I could teach my English class (the one I had confirmed that morning), but only one person was available. We talked in English for a little while, I helped her practice her “TH” sound (it doesn’t exist in the Ethiopian languages, so it gets rounded up to a “Z”), and then Miserak and I headed out. We ran into Rahel, who invited me over to her house.
Rahel had me relax on her couch while she got a “snack” (it was a big bowl of pasta and tomato sauce, and my dinner) and a coffee ceremony ready, and we had a lovely time. She taught me a new crocheting technique; her neighbor came over and we all talked in English, Amharic, and Afaan Oromo. I drank cups #5 and #6 of buna. Two hours flew by, and I realized it was getting dark and I had to start heading home.
Rahel threw on some flip flops to accompany me to the main road, but I told her “bekka” (enough) before we hit the steep, rocky slope at the end of her road. She told me if I had any problems, call her, and she would come running. I thanked her profusely for being such a good friend, and we said an affectionate goodbye. Sure enough, when I hit the corner of the main road, a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, came barreling towards me, screaming “FIRENJI FIRENJI FIRENJI.” I was texting a friend, and ignored him. He jumped in front of me and touched my boob. His hand was coated in sugarcane, and it left a big imprint on my shirt. I yelled at him that he was rude, much to the amusement of his friends and the loiterers on the corner.
Simultaneously caffeinated, annoyed, and grateful for the kindness of friends and strangers, I headed home. There hasn’t been water on my compound all day (boo!), but I have enough for about a week (if I don’t do laundry, that is) stored in a big barrel. There is electricity, though (yay!), so this evening, I think I’ll watch some episodes of The Wire and try to crochet a doily for the low table I (theoretically) use for buna ceremonies. I’ll read a little, and write a little, and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour.
And that, friends, is one day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. But despair not: The Good and The Mediocre are still to come.