scottinethiopia

An education sector Peace Corps Volunter in Ethiopia; The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Pigeon Eggs

The following picture needs some explaining….

birds

So what am I doing?

I’m collecting delicious pigeon eggs.

Why?

They’re delicious. I already said that.

Plus pigeon coos are the worst wake-up alarm – ever.

But what about that rubber glove and that ridiculous orange bucket on your head?

I’m protecting myself from the wrath of the mother pigeon’s talons and beak. Luckily, no harm was done. Except to the little baby pigeons….

I scrambled them.

 

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Who Watches the Watchmen?

I got this idea into my head that it would be fun (and informative) for me to riffle through my photos of life here in Ethiopia, choose one that is particularly poignant to me, and to expand upon it for my friends and family living 7,604 miles away. (And yes, that distance is accurate; I googled it.)

Without further ado, here’s the first story of what might become a serial.

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Meet Tesfay, the former guard of our former house. We moved out of this house last summer, shortly after the ‘incident’ I’m about to describe occurred.

First I’ll limn the backdrop. The walled compound we lived in contained one huge yet untenanted manse – which is what Tesfay was charged to guard – as well as the smaller, much smaller, musty three-room add-on that we occupied. There was a paved driveway within the walls of our compound, situated directly in front of our rooms, and it was in this makeshift courtyard that we’d exercise, grill out with friends and hand-wash and air-dry our laundry. Although Tesfay customarily sat outside our compound when on watch duty (as pictured above), he never failed to come inside our compound if he heard me or Jess outside in the driveway.

He’d come to watch, silently watch. He spoke no English (although he could count to ten in Italian) and, much to our annoyance, he would remain as taciturn as a mute whenever I tried to converse with him in Tigrinya, even though he definitely spoke Tigrinya. He was like a helicopter, just hovering right behind you, but quiet and unobtrusive, but that eerie quietness was all the more annoying because he would just stand there and watch your every motion with these unreadable beady eyes.

Washing clothes, he’d just stare. Jumping rope, he’d just stare. When I got to planting a garden, he’d just stare. I’d speak to him and he’d just grin cheshire-wide, and stare. I got to thinking there was something wrong with him, in the head, but every now and then, when I’d get frustrated with him and tell him to back off and give me some damn privacy, a sly smile that seemed to signal how he knew just what he was doing and knew that I knew what he was doing would creep onto his face just long enough to freak me out, and then he’d slink away. And I checked with our neighbors to make sure he was all there in the head. He was.

This guy was just good old fashioned weird is what I’m saying.

So one week before we’re supposed to move out of our house and leave this creep behind, which happened to be the busiest week of my service – the week leading up to a summer camp that I largely helped organize – I swing by the house on my lunch break to pack up a few things and to explain to Tesfay that we’ll be moving our things out over the course of the next few days. Only Tesfay isn’t around. I saw him from far off, when I was walking up the street to the house, but when I arrived he was nowhere to be seen. No matter, I thought, he’ll turn up by the time I’m done packing a few things and I’ll talk to him then.

It was when I walked outside the compound, after not finding Tesfay napping within the larger house, as he was wont to do, that I first sensed something to be amiss. As soon as I emerged onto the street he started moving at a canter to cross the street. Slowly, casually, I make to follow him. He looks over his shoulder, eyes me with this guilt-stricken sidelong glance, and starts jogging down the street like he’s trying to flee me. I holler out his name and his pace only quickens. Confused and not just a little annoyed, I break into a stride to catch up. When I accost him, he refuses to face me straight. He won’t stand still, squirming like some kindergartner that’s about to get scolded for having his hand caught in the cookie jar. What gives?

The reality of his captivity eventually sets in and I can talk to him without having to hedge him in with this silly merry-go-round dance I was pulling. While I’m talking to him – or rather talking at him – Jessi rolls up and starts tapping me on the shoulder. I ask what’s up and she points to the shorts Tesfay is wearing beneath his long careworn overcoat. I look and think, “hey, those are nice shorts”. And then, as fast as light illuminates a dark room, it dawns on me that those are my shorts he’s wearing!

Contrary to what you, dear reader, might be thinking, I did not flip out. Not yet. Calmly I inquired, in the local language, when and where he bought those shorts. Magically, the mute replies, saying he bought them in the city a month ago. I say that is not possible because those are my shorts; I bought them. He promptly, unthinkingly, calls me a liar. Now, what you need to understand is that the word for liar in Tigrinya is not one that gets tossed around lightly. You best mean it if you’re going to say it. It’s insulting. Jess and I, dimly recognizing this invective when he heard it, look at each other in disbelief, conferring with our eyes to try and confirm what we both thought we just heard. Remaining as laid-back as possible, I once again tell Tesfay that those are my shorts. Raising his voice and ranting in a rare display of volubility, he proceeds to call me a liar, amongst other unintelligible things, once again. Fed up, I cut him off, my temper snapping like a tightly wound up cord and my words flying back into his face like so much whiplash. Now it’s me ranting and raving about how he’s a liar, That I – not he – bought those shorts, That I have pictures of me wearing them, just check facebook! Are you crazy old man!?

Of course, in hindsight, I should have known he didn’t have a facebook to check…

By now the neighborhood has turned out to see what all the ruckus is about. The owners of the shops we’re standing in front of have stepped out, their customers, too. Passersby have stopped for a gawk, and I suddenly realize that we’ve got an audience. Fueled by the high-octane mixture of righteous indignation that anyone who has been a victim knows all too well, I turn to enlist the looky-loos by explaining my plaint in the best Tigrinya in can muster. Luckily I’m understood, more or less.

Next thing I know the crowd has corralled Tesfay. His back is pressed against the compound wall, the spittle of fierce accusations is lashing against his face, fingers are wagging, shouts are flying, and there Tesfay stands, motionless, cornered, as wide-eyed as quarry trapped by a predator. It’s at this point that I step in to deescalate the crowd. I tell them to just keep an eye on him while I go get my police officer friend from the cafe down the street. I distinctly remember having to tell the crowd not to hit him.

Tesfay and the crowd surrounding him is still there when I return with the cop in tow. I’ve explained the nature of this “incident” to the cop during the walk, and I leave it to him to exact justice on my behalf. As the cop and Tesfay are talking, one of the onlookers approaches me and says, in perfect English, that he’ll translate everything that’s being said and be my voice to the cop, since the cop, like the guard, speaks absolutely no English.

Here’s the gist of what went down.

Tesfay:  These are my shorts.

Cop: The Foreigner says they are his.

Tesfay:  He is a liar.

Cop: I don’t think he is a liar. Where did you get the shorts.

Tesfay: I bought them.

Cop: Where?

Tesfay: In the city.

Understanding the conversation so far, I vehemently interject: He’s a liar!

Everyone looks at me, more amused than astonished at my ability to follow the conversation and express my needs in their language.

Cop: You did not buy those in the city.

Tesfay: I found them.

Cop: Where did you find them?

Tesfay: Outside. In the streets.

“Liar!”                                            <—————– That’s me again.

Cop: Where did you find them?

Tesfay: Inside the compound.

I interject: Show us.

We – this whole motley crew of shopkeepers, wayfarers, school children, ferenji and a police officer – walk inside the compound, me thundering ahead of the group demanding Tesfay to indicate where exactly it was he found these shorts. Cowed by all the attention, he points to a spot directly underneath our clothesline.

I ask:  Were those shorts wet when you found them?

Tesfay: Yes.

My follow up:  Then do you think that they might have fallen off the clothesline – my clothesline – and that they didn’t magically fly over the compound wall and land here on the ground? (I had a lot of help translating that question!)

To this Tesfay finally owned up and confessed. A relief.

There was no punishment; no trial, no prosecution and no arrest. Tesfay simply went inside, disrobed, and turned the pants over to their rightful owner: me. I could see that the shame Tesfay endured was punishment enough and I had no desire to see him punished any further, even though a few vocal folks in the crowd were demanding that he be taken into custody. That would require paperwork. And time. My time. No thank you. I was busy enough with this impending camp. I wanted to end this as painlessly as possible; so I had my newfound translator friend translate my sincerest wish for us to put this ordeal behind us – to forgive and forget.

Extending my hand in what I thought was a magnanimous gesture of forgiveness, Tesfay flatly refused me. As churlish as a little child, he wouldn’t shake my hand and accept my forgiveness. Nor would he apologize. His recalcitrance stoked the enmity of all the onlookers and, before I knew it, it was chaos all over again. Folks were yelling at him, demanding him to say sorry and shake my hand. Eventually he crumbled under the pressure, but by then all my magnanimity had withered away. I still took his hand, but I looked him square in the eye with what I hope was a cold, hard, mean look – a look that communicated my downright disgust with him and his thievery.

What, you’re probably wondering, is the moral of this story? Where’s the silver lining?

I’ll tell you.

It’s about community. Integration. Friends and a sense of belonging. I doubt I would have been able to recover my shorts without the help of my neighbors. I may not have known them all by name, but they sure knew me – the resident ferenji that somehow speaks their language. That’s what saved me. The language. Life in Peace Corps can be grueling, a slow uphill slog through a mire of cultural misunderstandings and other faux pas nightmares, but it’s crazy moments like these – the time your guard steals your shorts and you’re a breath away from socking him in his mealy-mouthed face to get them back – that reaffirm your purpose and all the hard work and overtime you’ve been putting in to integrate into a community that more often than seems indifferent to you.

I was grateful that day – as I have been every day since – for my community.

Bouldering

Getting late on a Saturday night when a French friend of ours that works at the nearby wind turbine farm calls us up to see if we’d like to meet him bright and early the following morning to go rock climbing in the nearby town of Wukro. This is how excited we were:1961573_10100455682687055_1551591692_n

After a short drive accompanied by some chill non-Ethiopian music, both of which our French pal provided, we breakfasted at small street-side joint. Jessi had the special nashef – flash fried bits of bread doused in a spicy tomato and berbere sauce and topped with diced onions, hot peppers, more tomatoes, yoghurt and scrambled eggs – while I had the special full – an Egyptian-inspired dish consisting of cooked and mashed flava beans mixed with that same spicy tomato and berbere sauce and topped with scrambled eggs and yoghurt. FYI:  our meals were “special” because they came with eggs…

Two other Frenchmen, rolling up in a white pick-up identical to their compatriot’s,  joined us at table while we were eating. They, too, were going to climb. Three wiry young Ethiopian boys were sitting in the bed of their truck, jouncing back and forth while the driver jerkingly parallel parked. From the look of these kids, I could tell they were going to out-climb us all.

Sure enough, these kids flashed most of the routes we went to. Traversing rock faces with no more grip than what they could crimp with their fingertips, these kids made us look weak by comparison. Although Jess and I didn’t get very many photos of them flashing the rocks that day, here’s a few to give you an idea of where we were. 1891369_10102183828536935_1865902561_o 1669788_10102183817359335_2049448724_o 1598576_10102183835792395_1075509551_o 10000285_10100455682901625_466605745_n 1978427_10102183839045875_395457331_o 1960206_10100455683056315_911448551_n

 

Sustainability

It’s been a whole year since my last blog post, which means I’ve all but abandoned my initially romantic resolution to immortalize my Ethiopian experience within the permanency of the blogosphere. Blogging was fresh and exciting in the beginning – because life in Ethiopia was fresh and exciting in the beginning – but time, the inexorable erosive omnipresent tidal drag of time, it seems now in hindsight, has managed to silently but effectively inure me to the freshness and excitement of life in a foreign country, and, after only nine months of living, working, eating and sleeping in a country that I’ve been calling home now for the past 21 months, resigned me to a stubborn and silent complacency that I’m only now crawling out of.  So now, though I feel I run the risk of ironing yet another boring boilerplate under my blog’s unimaginative masthead, I’ll speak up and share a little something-something with you that neatly falls under the title ‘Sustainability’.

A big Peace Corps buzz word, sustainability is what us volunteers strive for. Sure we’re here to help folks out – capacity building its called in volunteer argot – but nothing is sweeter in the filed of international development than a homegrown project. A project, in other words, that wasn’t my idea. Here’s the story.

It starts back around October, 2013 with a 14 year old kid named Yabets. Well, actually, it starts with his friends Daniel and Sbhat, two soccer-crazed albeit pliable and smart students that have been helping me lead my English clubs since last year when they were in 7th grade. Now (and then) they’re in 8th grade. So is (was) Yabets. Only Yabets attends a different school, one just 2km or so down the street, which makes these kids neighbors and, as I said, friends.

Anyway, story goes that my teaching prowess is apparently the talk of the town, at least in the social circles of the 100 or so odd pre-teen and teenage kids that I’ve been working with in my clubs and that see me run by when I’m out for a jog some evenings; and this Yabets, envious or perhaps doubtful of the stories being bruited about concerning my “unorthodox” teaching methods (viz. teaching methods that are actually participatory and fun!) boldly took it upon himself to make his own English club with yours truly at the head of each lesson.

Now keep in mind that I’ve never met this kid. No idea who he is. No clue what he looks like (although I think I was in the clear when I assumed he was Ethiopian). And hell, I wasn’t even sure if he was a he or she at first (14 year olds, whether a girl or boy, tend to have similar sounding voices over the phone). Regardless of whether or not I knew this kid, it didn’t matter, he had apparently already abandoned any and all cares regarding the awkward social proprieties that usually (normally) repel total strangers, and, dead set on letting nothing prevent him from obtaining his goal, this motivated, smart, and, to use a word that truly fits – whimsical – kid cunningly contrived to obtain my cell phone number and, after what must have amounted to hours of English practice and prep and gumption gathering, called me up from an unknown number on some random Sunday morning to demand – yes, demand – that I come lead a English club at his school that very next day – Monday. Of course I balked at first, fidgeted and fumbled for the words to a way out – Oooo Monday, let’s see, not good, you see, I’m busy Mondays during  the day, so only the afternoon is good, or, Well, you see, I’d need, I mean we’d need a classroom to use, which means we’d need to talk to the school director, choose a room, and get a copy of the key, or, Then we’d need to pick students, because I will only take 10-15, no more, and they must be group leaders, all of them equally good in English – any excuse that could upend this stranger kid’s impish little plan to create an English club out of thin air. But…. the puckish little kid knew my tack almost before I could even finish rattling off the excuses! Like he had had me under surveillance or something. House wired. Phones tapped. Knew all my rules and strictures when it came to creating English clubs. Sure enough, this kid, Yabets, had already done all the legwork. He talked to his school director, got his permission, procured a classroom and a copy of the key, picked out 15 students (all of them group leaders he assured me) and even knew for a fact that Monday afternoons were my only free periods to lead another English club. His insider’s knowledge of my schedule and workaday proclivities perplexed me. Who’d he talk to? A teacher from my school? No, I never really fill them in on what I’m doing any more than I have to. The school director? No, he’s a curmudgeon that I actively steer clear of. Who, then? Who? That mystery I wasn’t able to solve that morning over the phone. That denouement came later, when I saw Sbhat and Daniel later that day, great big shit-eating grins drawn across their faces. So, in the end,  I called Yabets back, abdicated, and meekly agreed to show up the next afternoon and stand and deliver an English lesson.

This was back in October. I’ve had the privilege of leading this English club for the past semester and a half. Yabets and his fellow students are for sure the best and brightest out of the 100 odd that I’ve been teaching. The most refreshing thing is that these kids came up with this all on their own. They broke the cycle of monotony that stymied my blogging a year ago. Their eagerness, their excitement, their creativity and ownership of this club is what has been keeping me chugging along, disinterring me from the tomb of of malaise that inexorably accumulates and buries you when so much of your work feels forced, second-handed and not honestly bought into and owned by those individuals it is supposed to benefit. And so I feel a little bad right now, like I let myself down in not sharing this success story earlier, but, now that it’ shared, now that it’s out there for you to read and ponder (whoever you are) and now that it’s emblazoned forever on this blog of mine, I feel a bit better. Accomplished. At least I’ll be able to come back to this 5, 10, 15 years down the line, read my breezy blather and think to myself, Damn straight, Scott. Damn straight.

English Club

It was the end of December when I first proposed an English club to my school’s 250+ eighth grade students. There’s a big exam at the end of the year for them, and a large part of this exam is devoted to English. They don’t go on to high school if they fail, so I figured the creation of an English club – just a relaxed place for them to practice English with a native speaker – to be something worth their while.

One day I passed around a sign-up sheet, doing my best to explain its purpose in pidgin English and my even worse Tigrinya. I tried to emphasize that joining the club is strictly voluntary, and that next to their name on the sign-up sheet they should indicate the day of the week (Monday-Friday) that they’d prefer to have the club. Kinfe, eager as ever to do right by me, is right there beside me translating my drivel into something more intelligible. Whether he didn’t hear me right, or whether he felt that the kids needed a little extra goading, I found myself hearing him say, in Tigrinya, “this is not voluntary” and “Saturday” over and over again. This is the exact opposite of what I was saying. Hearing this, standing up there in front of the class with him, I start interjecting shouts of “It’s Voluntary!” in Tigrinya. But it’s too late. Kinfe has already gotten his point across. Amending our instructions at that point would have been as much a pain in the ass as herding cats. And now I’m cursing under my breath, which really isn’t necessary in a place where your curse words aren’t understood.

The number of students that ended up signing up totaled about 210. The day they unanimously preferred was – you guessed it – Saturday. To that I shrugged my shoulders. I can work six days a week, I thought, so long as I make some of my weekdays half-days. But that number – 210 – there was just no way that was going to happen.

Now, it would certainly be nice if I could host 210 kids in several separate English clubs. But the thing was that I knew the vast majority of these kids had no real intention of participating. They were under duress when they signed up. I was going to have to winnow out the insincere students somehow.

My plan was to require those that signed up to write a paragraph – in English – about why they wanted to join the English club. A sentence, I told them, would even be fine. Anything, so long as it was in English. I gave them until the end of the week to do so and waited to see how many of the uninitiated would be weeded out.

The students turned in their work on a mix of poorly shorn loose-leaf and threadbare paper of myriad origins – tissue paper, newspapers, magazines, etc. At first glance the writing seemed to be in Tigrinya, not English. Closer inspection revealed a new level of illegible, a bastard alphabet born of an ungodly marriage between the scripts of our two languages (my fellow PCVs will understand what I mean). Sure, it was English, but I never knew our letters could be so (how can I put this lightly?) artistically adapted. Regardless, I persevered through the review, attentively spell-checking those paragraphs I could actually make sense of, and generously slapping big check-marks on those that were nothing more than a mishmash of curly-cues and alphabet soup.

Now for the best part:  the content of these letters.

We’ll start with the bad. The first four I chanced to check could have been photocopies of each other. I mean exact facsimiles. Not only were they copied word for word, but they contained the same outrageous spelling mistakes, indentations and, in one case, the original author’s name and signature! Astonished, but not as astonished as you might imagine (I have been here for almost 9 months now), I had to abandon grading and set out to see how many people copied each other. This was no small task considering the chicken scratch that I had to decode in order to see if things were copied word for word, plus the fact that there were over a 100 paragraphs to laboriously sift through.

Perhaps 30 paragraphs turned out to be unique and not the product of cheating. It was life-affirming to read them. These kids spoke of dreams to travel the world, of becoming doctors or future leaders, of attending college. They knew the value of learning English, and they recognized the incredible opportunity they had in me, a native speaker. Some thanked me for volunteering with them. It was like they almost understood the sacrifices we PCVs make in living here, in a foreign country of alien customs. These exceptional paragraphs I kept and diligently corrected before returning them. The others – the copiers – I returned along with the gift of a second chance, after I dramatically denounced them for cheating in front of their class, that is.

About half of those I gave a second chance to availed themselves of the opportunity; and nearly all their redo’s came back legitimate. Only four kids tried to resubmit the same paragraph they originally gave me. They must not have noticed the big fat X I drew across their paragraphs the first time. I sure did.

It was over a week ago that I first set this English club into motion, and I now had a pool of around 65 truly interested students to show for it. In the middle of the week I announced that the upcoming Saturday would be our first meeting. We decided that half would come in the morning and the other half would come in the afternoon. My handy-dandy, Peace Corps-issued calendar foretold a weekend free of Ethiopian holidays. I rested assured of the bright things to come.

Now, I wouldn’t be blogging about this if that was that and my English club went off without a hitch. Nothing goes that smoothly here, not even a trip to the bathroom (I had to wipe with notebook paper the other day). So you guessed right if you guessed that there was some unforeseen holiday that weekend. You’d have been spot on if you also guessed that I wasn’t informed of it until the very last minute.

(Was that potty talk too much?)

Here’s how it went down.

It was the end of the day on Friday, as I was walking out the school gate with Kinfe, beaming about the English club I’d be having tomorrow, when a whim inclined me to jokingly remind him of the club for the umpteenth time that day. Fresh mention of the club struck a flash of guilt lighting fast across his face. He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me ponderously. He was thinking, seemingly ruminating on something like the Higgs Boson judging from his intense brow furrowing. A mouse running round in its wheel came to mind. Then – cue the cartoon light bulb flashing above head – he told me about this holiday and its interference with our English club. It was for some minor saint or something other, he said. Evidently everyone would be in church in the morning and feasting with their families in the afternoon.

“It is not possible”, he said.

Oh, how I’m starting to get used to those words.

So I rescheduled the club for the next Saturday.

On Wednesday of that next week I learned of this field day that was to take place on the Saturday I rescheduled for. That’s strike two.

The next week was devoted to mid-term exams, so no club once again.

Then there came a two-week break. Obviously no club.

The first week back was another no-go. Some students (and teachers) evidently conflated two with three in their calculation of the duration of the break, and so the school was deserted that whole first week back.

So, once again, I rescheduled for the next Saturday.

Monday came and I asked multiple faculty members, in English and Tigrinya, if there were any “programs” scheduled for that Saturday. The response was a resounding chorus of No’s. I repeated my inquiries the following day, and I was given the same answer. I was getting pumped. Things were looking up. I was getting on top of this fly-by-the-seam-of-your-pants time management mentality that’s so unique to Ethiopia. But then I heard, or rather deciphered, some disconcerting words during Wednesday’s faculty meeting.

Mind you, these meetings are conducted entirely in Tigrinya. I try to listen, which amuses the hell out of the staff, but I don’t understand much. Fortunately, there are some English language words that have no convenient equivalent in Tigrinya. ‘Parent Teacher Conference’ is one such example. Now, if I combine these intelligible English phrases with the rudimentary Tigrinya vocab I can sometimes pick out of the helter-skelter warble that is fluently spoken Tigrinya, I can sort of cobble together the gist of a short conversation.

From Wednesday’s meeting I was several times able to discern the Tigrinya word for Saturday (K’adam). What alarmed me, however, was the repeated nearness of K’adam to the words ‘Parent Teacher Conference’. Sure enough, after I cornered the school director and basically interrogated him, I learned that there was to be a PTA meeting throughout the day on Saturday.

I’ve lost count of how many strike outs now.

I had surpassed frustration. I was daydreaming of caving in a kid’s skull for calling me ‘ferenji’ more than was healthy. The coming Monday was to be yet another holiday, god dammit,  so I dedicated the remainder of the week to informing the kids that we’d meet during Tuesday’s tea break in order to vote on a new schedule for the English club. Saturday was going to be off the table. I was adamant about that. They’d have to choose a weekday – no if’s, and’s or but’s – and I’d only consent to the hour immediately after the last school bell. Can’t come? Well screw you little kid.

In the 30 minutes of this meeting I somehow managed to tabulate all their votes, reach consensus on the meeting days being Wednesdays and Thursdays, convince cliques to split up and shuffle around so we’d have an even number of members in each section, and get it all down on paper so I’d have a semblance of an reliable roster to go by. This was Tuesday of last week, nine whopping weeks after I first told these kids to write their paragraphs.

And then, the day after that meeting, I held my first English club. Sixteen students showed up, and 17 showed up on Thursday. Four kids came to both meetings even though I told them we’d be doing the exact same activities on both days. They didn’t care. They just wanted to be there. I felt all warm in fuzzy inside.

It was our first meeting, so I kept things short – one hour to be exact. I kicked things off by having them create their own club rules. They worked in small groups to write the rules down in both English and Tigrinya. I helped as much as I could, but all the credit really goes to my Tigrinya tutor, a fellow named Getachew, who came along for support. His English is superb and he thought it would be galvanizing to show the kids how, if you try hard enough, you can learn English and become successful just like he did.

It took about 30 minutes to hammer out these rules. They were as follows:  1) Do not hit other students. 2) Respect the teacher and other students. 3) Do not take or break classroom materials. 4) Do not make noise or disturb in class. They came up with these rules themselves, which hopefully means they’ll have more of a vested interest in upholding them than if I enforced them by fiat. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

The other activity we did was a sort of ice-breaker. I mentioned earlier that I want this club to be a relaxed place for them to practice English without worry. I don’t want kids to be embarrassed to make mistakes. Mistakes are good to make, I’ve told them. So, to warm them up, I told them to take turns introducing themselves in front of the club. The catch was that they’d have to yell their words. I went first to serve as a model. They were thunderstruck by the foudroyance of my voice. Some had to clasp their ears. After my example, one girl bravely volunteered to go first. She did a pretty good job shouting, but the rest of the students had to be dragged up to the front to participate. Confidence is something I want to work on in this club, and their timidity in this activity established a baseline upon which I hope to build. Opera and death metal by the end of the year I imagine.

So that was last week. I won’t be having the club this week since I have a mandatory Peace Corps training to attend, but I’ll be keeping it up for the rest of the school year. I promise pictures will come, and I’ll keep y’all posted on anything else worthy of being blogged about.

Till then, peace out –

Field Day

The Holidays Part Two: New Years and the Two Christmases

Hanukkah came and went, and I’d be lying if I said that business with the beer towers didn’t get at me still. But enough of that. I’m here now to tell y’all about News Years and the two, yes two, Christmases we got to celebrate here in Ethiopia.

I may or may not have explained the Ethiopian calendar in previous posts. I don’t think I did, so here’s a quick backdrop.

Way back when, around 46 BC, Julius Caesar introduced this calendar – the Julian calendar –and Western peoples the world over lived and died by it until 1582, when Pope Gregory instituted this other calendar – the Gregorian calendar – which we use to this day. The Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia, however, always have and still do subscribe to the Julian calendar. Why? I’m not exactly sure. Something to do with their orthodoxy. Google it, I guess. But what I do know is that because of the mathematical discrepancies between the two calendar systems the year is 2005 here in Ethiopia. There are also thirteen, not twelve, months. Thirteen months of sunshine, as they like to say. But what I want you to take away from this little history lesson is that, because of their unique calendar, Ethiopia’s Christmas, as well as their New Year and all other holidays for that matter, fall on days different from our own.

Our Christmas came first, because we’re better.

Joking…

But it really did come first. Ethiopian Christmas falls on January, 7th.

There’s a historical town called Axum that’s a six hour bus ride northeast of Mek’ele. Two other PCVs from our group were placed there, and we promised them some time back that we’d do Christmas with them.

So we did.

Now Axum isn’t your run of the mill Ethiopian town. It was once the capital of the Axumite kingdom, which flourished between the 1st and 6th centuries AD. Two thousand year old obelisks still stand as a testament to the power this erstwhile empire once had. But here’s the kicker:  the Ark of the Covenant – you know, that religious artifact from that Indian Jones movie that shoots lightning and melts the faces off Nazis – that thing, along with the Ten Commandments Moses supposedly sealed within, is said to reside in this ancient church of Axum.

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Saying that Axum is a six hour bus ride northeast of Mek’ele doesn’t quite capture the quintessence of that harrowing journey.

Imagine the Grand Canyon, not quite as deep, but spread out over six driving-hours worth of gully-furrowed badlands. Now imagine a lone road – a road paved by Ethiopians under the guidance of Chinese ex-cons and other miscellaneous riffraff – winding its way through this craggy scrubland. It’s a two-lane road so tortuous it redefines serpentine. Hairpin turns; ten percent grade inclines and declivities; no guardrails to keep you from flying off the sheer cliff walls; no lane lines to mark whose side of the road is whose: only you and the decades old, communist-era, rust heap of a bus you’re interred in barreling headlong down the road.

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Jessi, of course, was a nervous wreck for the majority of the ride. I, on the other hand, chose not to be so fixated on the macabre. I sunk into what little bit of a seat I had, looked out the window, and surrendered to the hypnotizing beauty and grandeur of the fast fleeting countryside.

I saw mountains drink from the clear waters of a cloudless cerulean sky, their faraway summits wavy and mirage-like in the ripples of a midday heat. I saw ancient arroyos, their faces time-scarred by streaks of sepia, sienna, puce and umber, crisscross and grow in size until they emptied into the maws of the larger canyons. Heaps of windrow raked up by farmers sat atop these little raised plateaus that spotted the rolling sea of spall and boulder like islands. The farmers’ huts, being the same tawny color as their desert surroundings, were a challenge to spot, so I felt rewarded when I did. Through it all I couldn’t help wishing I was a gifted painter, that way I could capture the brindled chiaroscuro that is northern Ethiopia, and maybe make a buck in the process.

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And then I started to smell something awful. I turn away from the window to see the two Ethiopians sitting next to me puking into plastic bags. I look around and realize they’re not alone. One in five are retching up their injera breakfast, and now I’m clamoring to crack open that window I was just dreamily gazing out.

The puking marathon lasted for the remainder of the ride. Sitting in the back of a long, wobbly-wheeled bus like we were, the g-force of those hairpin turns was amped up, just like when you sit in the last row of a roller coaster. Luckily, I did manage to get that window open, otherwise I might have joined them.

Finally,after the most vertiginous ride of our lives, we arrived in Axum. Well, sort of. It was only after missing the bust stop and having to walk clear across town that we met up with our friends. There we learned that our very own Peace Corps Ethiopia country director would be in Axum that night with his wife and kid for their Christmas break. We’d be staying at the same hotel actually;and we were told that they had already called ahead to see if we’d be interested in a dinner date. Were we interested? Hells yes! This was huge because this country director of ours is a government official way up high in the bureaucratic pecking order. He’s been around the world on diplomatic missions, was once the ambassador to Togo, lived and worked in Iraq during the beginning of the war, has dined with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and he probably has the president, or at least Hillary Clinton, on speed dial. This is the guy we’ll be counting on for a letter of recommendation once we successfully complete our service. Being able to spend some face time with him was a godsend.

We also learned that our friend was playing host to a couch surfing American that was taking a vacation from his job as a PE teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. Would it be cool if he tagged alone? Once again, hells yes.

Together we went and saw the sites.

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The obelisks I’ve already mentioned. The picture above, however, is of Sheba’s palace, or at least what remains of it. Legend has it that this Sheba lady was Queen of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) way back when during the reign of the Old Testament’s King Solomon. The Bible makes mention of her visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem, and, as such, the spread of Judeo-Christian culture throughout the horn of Africa is attributed to her.

But you can Wikipedia all this in your free time if you want any more of a history lesson.

Having left the palace, and feeling thoroughly tuckered out from all the trudging around in the sun, we proceeded toget busy with the yuletide festivities. As per usual, we went to a bar to get some beer and delicious (cheap) Ethiopian food.

Several hours later we met up for that dinner. We had some good conversations, got to voice some of our frustrations from working in the education sector, and learned a great deal about eachother.

The next day, Christmas, saw us opening presents at our friend’s place. We did it white elephant style. I ended up with this weird birthday candle thing shaped like a flower, and Jessi ended up with a bunch of chocolate. Mmmmmm.

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Once the gifts were opened we devoured some holiday candy that one of the other volunteers had sent to them in a care package. Then there was the usual midday visit to the bar, followed by some lunch, and, finally, a late-night viewing of the much acclaimed A Muppets’ Christmas Carol.

New Year fell between our Christmas and the Ethiopian one. Most of the Tigray volunteers traveled into Mek’ele for it, and I did my best to recruit as many of the Ethiopians I had befriended in Mek’ele. Our party was upwards of thirty strong, and we had folks representing countries like England, Germany, Israel, Ethiopia and, of course, America.

The venue was a bar with an owner that we Mek’ele volunteers have come to befriend. He’s been a genuinely nice guy, so long as you can forgive the sometimes creepy passes he makes at the single women in our group. One of his more recent text messages sent to a female volunteer: ‘Your beauty is like a rose, buy I hope you don’t prick me.’ Damn weird, right? Anywho, he had agreed to keep the bar open late for us and to tune all the TVs to the BBC or CNN so we could see the New Year coverage. What unfolded was a party to remember.

There was plenty of drinking, so much Western-style dancing that it was making Ethiopian heads spin, fireworks bought from a sketchball that was trying to sell something else first, and even a fire dance, compliments of this girl Hannah from the new group of health sector PCVs.

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The holiday season came to a close with Ethiopian Christmas. Like us, they put up Christmas trees and, if they’re wealthy/westernized enough, they’ll even exchange gifts (although this practice may be isolated to Mek’ele and other large cities).

Kinfe was so stoked to have us over that day that he contracted a car and driver to pick us up from our house that Christmas morning; that way, he said, we could avoid the headache that is public transportation on a holiday. For us – and only us, since his family already ate – he (or rather his wife) prepared a sumptuous lunch consisting of six meat courses, loads of injera, a bunch of bananas, cookies, cream-filled crackers, soft drinks and, of course, copious amounts of traditional black coffee. And then there was the su’a, which is a homebrew that tastes more like fizzy prune juice than the beer they claim it to be.

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From there we went on to round two:  dinner at Jessi’s counterpart’s house. Once again, we were fed more food than we could ever possibly hope to eat. The su’a was exchanged for red wine, and, at the behest of Jessi’s counterpart, we were sure to mix coca cola in with it.

The culture of hospitality in Ethiopia, or at least in Tigray, is a funny thing. It revolves around the host’s unbridled generosity and the guest’s feigned obliviousness of being a guest entitled to such hospitality. The host will not rest until they are sure of your satisfaction. They hover around, eying your progress throughout the meal, and attempt to preempt your every need by swooping in with what they think you’re in need of before you have to ask. If you’re the guest, you’re supposed to play coy:  you say no thanks, I’ve had enough; you say you’re full, satisfied, that you couldn’t possibly eat any more; you say that you really must be shoving off, that you don’t want to intrude any longer in their household.

All of this is a playacting, of course, but it functions like a game, an inside joke between the host and guest. It’s the culture, but it’s their culture, and they sometimes forget that when I say I’m full I really am full. As a result, Jessi and I have developed a habit of saying we’re full way before we actually are. Sometimes it works. Sometimes…

The Holidays Part One: An Ethiopian Hanukkah, or, A Festival of Lights Benighted

A lot of our fellow Tigray PCVs came into Mek’ele for the first night of Hanukkah. We kicked the day off quite early with beers and food at a restaurant most of us had never been to before. It was a pretty swanky place as far as Mek’ele is concerned, and everyone was in high spirits. It was good to be together. Eventually, after the food and x amount of draft beers, some of the group – the girls mostly – paid their tab and made out for the house. They had some things they wanted to shop for in preparation for the feast we’d be having later in the night. Some of the guys and I stuck around, however, because, well, we had nothing better to do.

Having decided to stick around we soon became cognizant of some beer towers looming disused in the distance behind the bar. We made inquiries with the wait staff, procured one, then two, and then two more since we made such good time with the first two. Afterward, sated and happy, we received the bill. Reading through to the final sum through some rather bleary eyes, we noticed that the number of beers the tab claimed we drank to be something astronomical, so much so that we all felt no choice but to doubt its veracity. Gumption gathered, I hailed the waitress and, deciding it’d be best to broach this obvious miscalculation in her native tongue, I proceeded (in Tigrinya) as follows:

“How many beers are in one beer tower?”

“Huh?”

“How many beers are in one beer tower?”

‘Beer tower’ is simply ‘beer tower’ in Tigrinya, so I lucked out with that part of the exchange.

“Nine.”

“Nine?!”

“Yes, nine.”

“Nine drafts”, I said, holding one of the empty mugs up for her inspection, “Nine of these?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not nine drafts.”

Confidence with these sorts of things is key. You have to seem like you know what you’re talking about, and people will buy whatever you’re selling. But this lady wasn’t buying. Faltering in the face of her leery glare, a spark of inspiration alit on my mind in the nick of time. I’d simply fill up some mugs with water and pour them into the empty tower to see how many it actually took to fill the sucker up. She’d watch me, we’d both keep count, and together we’d let the impartial objectivity of mathematics settle the score. Genius, right?

Sure enough, one tower worked out to seven, not nine, beers. Now, given the fact that we drained a total of four towers, my little experiment should have deducted eight beers from the total on the bill we received. Yet, despite my dazzling display of the scientific method applied to the quantification of beer consumption, the logical suasion of induction proved to hold no sway over our waitress’s philistine mind.

She literally wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) believe her eyes. We were flabbergasted. But we had no other recourse. Our insistence on the matter, or perhaps our inability to adequately vocalize the findings of our experiment in perfect Tigrinya – to present it to her in, say, abstract form complete with footnotes and a bibliography – whatever the case, our waitress was inclined to defer the matter to the restaurant owner, a man whose English was scarcely better than her own and who was not privy to the results of the experiment so recently concluded.

Several iterations later we were going nowhere fast with this guy. Despite our best protestations the original bill still lay on the table.  Patience ran dry. Gumption turned to temerity when, in order to get them out of our hair for a moment, we shooed them away with a few ‘OK, OK’s’ in Tigrinya. Alone now, we schemed. We decided, rightfully I should add, that we’d recalculate the bill ourselves, factoring in the difference in beer consumption that we felt our dalliance in science justifiably proved. We’d pay that amount, dip out, and they’d take what we’d give them and be happy with it.

So we paid what we thought just and right, and left. Most of the guys went one way to catch a taxi to the house while myself and another volunteer took the reins on procuring more beer for the night’s festivities and went another way. We figured one bar would be as good as any other for our mission so we went in the direction of the closest bar we knew of.

We didn’t get very far until the waitress from the restaurant caught up with us. She looked harried, like she had been running after us, and she had the bill and all the money we had paid in hand. She was saying something, but Tigrinya can be a whirlwind of guttural clicks and clacks so we told her to speak slowly and repeat what she was saying. It was about the beer tower discrepancy. She wanted the extra money. At this point we were fed up. We made our case once again, reiterating the fact that one beer tower is seven, not nine, beers. People within earshot got interested in what was happening because, well, it’s not every day that two ferenji can hold their own in an argument conducted in Tigrinya. Lucky for us an older gentleman approached and, after directing a derogatory guffaw to the waitress, said something very rapidly in Tigrinya to the effect that we were right and she was wrong. And like that she dropped it. She sulked away and we were on our way.

It was fixing to get dark and the town was out in force to catch the night’s soccer matches. It was rivalry night or something other so some of the best Premier League teams were playing. The place was crowded, standing room only. Our presence, once known, drew more eyes than the riveting neck-and-neck game on the tube. Feeling the weight of all the stares, we waded through a sea of people to get to the bar. Once there, we had to shout over the roar to make ourselves heard. Once again, we reached deep into our reserves and sprung our best Tigrinya on the ostensible owner of the bar.

“Good evening. How are you? Are you fine?”

A blank expression drapes his face as he wonders whether or not to trust his ears. Then it dawns on him, those ferenji are actually speaking Tigrinya. A smile lit on his face and we knew we were in business.

“What is your favorite soccer team?”, my friend says.

“Arsenal.”, the guy says. “And you?”

“Liverpool.”

“And you?”

“Liverpool.”, I say.

Introductory banter behind us, we got to the point.

“We need a case of beer. How much?”

Now normally when you buy anything in a bottle with the intention of consuming it outside the premises from whence it came you must pay a deposit on the bottle. Folks here like to recycle their glass so breaking or misplacing the bottle is a lost investment in their eyes. We, however, did not have enough of a cash cushion to absorb this extra cost. We did, however, have enough cash to buy a convivial round or two of drinks for the guy.

The owner took kindly to the gesture and gave us the case without the deposit charge. All he wanted in exchange was my phone number and a promise that we’d return the empty bottles tomorrow. No sweat.

Riding that wave of success, not to mention the extra drinks we downed, we bid farewell and marched out of the bar into the heady winds of a starry night. We knew the general direction of our friend’s house, so we started traipsing through the city center with that bearing in mind.

I’m sure we must have been an odd sight to behold:  two ferenji carrying a case of beer through the city center on foot instead of being chauffeured around by some garish UN or NGO-labeled vehicle like all the other ‘normal’ ferenji in town. We were center stage, reeling in the spotlight of the city center’s twilit phantasmagoria:  dodging kids whenever they offered us a helping hand in exchange for a few birr; shooing them away and laughing about it right along with them; checking our pockets afterward to make sure we weren’t pickpocketed; feigning ignorance of the sidelong glances coming from the young that feel too ashamed to be caught staring; enduring the fervid glares from the elderly that just don’t give a damn; shaking off the ever-persistent, ever-rude bajajs as they clamored for our business; and, of course, being the ever-vigilant folks we were, keeping an eye out for the crazies, drunks and tweakers that roam in the gloaming of any concrete jungle.

We had intended to head in the general direction of the house by keeping to the roads that we knew the line taxi used, our hope being to catch one of the buses mid-route. But we soon figured out that it was too late to catch a line taxi, that we were far removed from the safe and reassuring street lights of the city center, and that we had somehow wandered off this taxi line in the process.

Whoops.

The streets were narrow, dimly lit and hemmed in by rows of squat stone walls. Beyond these walls were houses, people and families. But every door was locked shut, the lights within off, and we were left alone with the empty click-clack of our feet dragging on the cobblestone.

The darkness (or maybe the beer) was making reality into deceptive shadow play. We’d espy an alleyway in the distance, plan to turn off there in hopes of its leading to a main road, some light, a place to sit and rest, but the niche in the stone wall would prove to be nothing more than a dead-end.

Yea, we were lost. But the panic lasted all of one minute.

Being lost is tough work, you see, especially if you’re lugging a case of beer all the while, so we found a suitable stoop, something quaint and in the lee of building that skirted the ochre glow of a nearby street light, and proceeded to wedge open some piss warm beers with locally available resources, i.e. stones. With every sip the atavistic fear of being lost transmogrified more and more into a great odyssean sense of adventure.

A moment’s rest gave us a moment of clarity. Our arms were throbbing from the weight of our load and our fingers were smarting from being crimped into the tiny handholds of the case. People came and went but did not notice us shrouded in the lamplight’s penumbra. Plopped on the stoop, beer in hand, we tried to get our bearings straight, tried to descry some recognizable landmark to act as a signpost for the remainder of our journey, but it was of no avail. It was damn dark. Resigned to being downright lost, we polished off our beers, lurched to our feet, wiped the dust off from our behinds, and kept on keeping on in the same direction we had been going beforehand.

We interspersed the remainder of our journey with two or three more of these recuperative sojourns. But, as they say, all good things come to an end. Eventually the others started getting worried over our absence. Our cells were blowing up. We tried to conceal the fact of our being lost at first, but a woman’s intuition all too easily unravels the subterfuge of men, and so we were found out.

Feeling a little embarrassed, but certainly a bit more exhilarated after having the women confirm our audacity with their heartfelt plaints about our welfare, we swallowed our pride and agreed to seek out a bajaj. Soon enough we found one. We threw bargaining for a fair price to the wayside and shamefacedly sunk into our seats, resigned to pay whatever the hell this guy asked for.

We told the driver our destination and were on our way.

As it turned out, we were two blocks – two measly blocks! – from our friends house when we decided to give up and take the bajaj. We had overshot her road during our wanderings and, in the bajaj now, approached it from the rear. So close but yet so far.

So we made it to the house, and with our adventure at an end it was time to relay the story of our epic journey to those interested. Before we could, however, there was a story waiting for us. The other guys, the ones that parted ways with us after the restaurant, had been chased down by the owner of the restaurant and a cop because of the bill discrepancy. Here’s what went down.

If you recall, myself and my friend managed to overcome the waitress’s importunes by simply reiterating the findings of our little experiment back at the restaurant. We also had that older gentleman swoop in, but that was probably just because our logic was so damn appealing that he couldn’t resist an opportunity to stand up for reason and justice. A sort of Good Samaritan, I’d say. Anyways, as we were listening to the other guys’ story about their run-in with the cop and proprietor, it soon became obvious that it wasn’t going to end well.

At first they tried to play buddy-buddy with the cop. That never works, so then they resorted to anger and invective. That also never works, especially if you’re dealing with a cop. Long story short, it came down to paying the difference or paying a visit to the local jail. And I’m sure you can guess what happened from there.

The Student Becomes the Teacher Becomes the Student

Work is finally picking up. I’ve completed the first of (hopefully) many teacher mentorship programs at my hub school. I decided to kick start the program with my Peace Corps assigned counterpart, Kinfe. In addition to being the school’s only eighth grade English teacher, which means he teaches seven interminable periods a day, he is also my good friend and strongest advocate. But before I delve into the success or failure of this program, I want to give you an outline of how the program is supposed to be organized, that way you can compare the ideal with the real just as I have to do every single day.

The Teacher Mentoring Program (TMP) was designed by a PCV from the first cohort of education sector volunteers to come to Ethiopia nearly two years ago. The TMP is designed to work with teachers of all grade levels; and its objectives are aligned with those of the Ministry of Education here in Ethiopia. Put simply, the TMP is a four-week program that aims to assess and improve a teacher’s pedagogy. To be more specific about its goals, here’s an itemization of the ideal objectives:

  • The PCV will observe the teacher in the classroom; the PCV will collaborate with the teacher to discuss the teacher’s pedagogy and how it can be strengthened.
  • The PCV will teach and co-teach classes with the teacher in order to model active learning methodologies.
  • Teachers will attempt to implement active learning methodologies in their classrooms and will receive feedback from the PCV.
  • The PCV and teacher will collaborate to design an action plan tailored to areas identified as in need of improvement, e.g. classroom management, participation, tardiness, etc.
  • The PCV will provide continuous assessment and support for the teacher through periodical observations, written feedback and formal pedagogical training sessions.
  • The teacher will understand the concept of active learning by the end of the TMP; by the end of the program the teacher will be able to articulate three benefits and three examples of active learning.
  • The teacher will begin a reflective journal; by the end of the program the teacher will be able to articulate three benefits of keeping a reflective journal.

All of these goals are supposed to be achieved within a four-week period. And here’s how.

Week One: In the first week, I observe a teacher inside and outside the classroom to understand their pedagogical style. I take notes during these observations and discuss the classroom lesson objectively with the teacher, using time indicators paired with the students’ or teacher’s actions, such as, ‘For fifteen minutes the teacher reviewed the previous day’s lesson,” or, “One student (male) answered five questions during the class period”. This sort of feedback is designed to help the teacher become more aware of his/her pedagogy in order to foster a more reflective discussion on teaching styles.

Week Two: I teach the class and the teacher observes me. While observing me, the teacher is to keep a reflective journal of objective observations just the same as I did while observing them. After class they share their feedback with me and, together, we work to identify what worked well, what failed, and what differences we saw when active learning methodologies were used. While teaching, I still stick to the content of the teacher’s lesson plan, but I may adapt these lessons if I find them to be unsuitable, e.g. if they are beyond the comprehension level of the students, which, as it turns out, they all too often are. I also involve the teacher in the process of my lesson planning, imparting knowledge about the tenets of active learning methodologies – pre- and post-assessments, motivators, etc. – and how they can be (need to be) inserted into nearly any lesson. Finally, I also work with them to create/find teaching aids and resources.

Week Three: We co-teach during the third week. The focus here is for us to collaborate on the lesson planning. The teacher will continue journaling about this experience and consider what differences the active learning strategies have made in the classroom. During breaks or before/after class, I make an effort to learn more about the teacher’s professional goals and objectives in the context of pedagogy and active learning, that way I can catch a glimpse of how to continue monitoring and evaluation with the teacher once the program is finished.

Week Four: This week is similar to the first. The teacher teaches their class again while I observe. Ideally, I am able to note improvements. Finally, the teacher and I will work together to create an action plan that extends into the rest of the school year. For example, the teacher might identify a gender disparity in participation as a problem they want to solve. Together we will brainstorm techniques for solving the problem. I’ll provide continuous assessment in this endeavor by occasionally revisiting their class throughout the year to monitor progress.

OK. So now you understand the ideal goals of this program. Let me talk about the harsh reality of it.

So the first week was pretty much a breeze. I observed classes, noted some areas that Kinfe could improve upon, and did my best to gauge the comprehension levels of the students. What I found was that Kinfe unflaggingly sticks to the textbook and its inadequate, ofttimes obtuse exercises. I also noticed an incredible disparity in comprehension levels amongst the students. Some could have a short conversation with you in English, while others just stood there blank-faced and dumbfounded when spoken to; some were developing literacy, others were so illiterate as to suggest the presence of some sort of dyslexia; and some would simply use English class as an extra study hall to complete their math homework. Oh, and another thing, each of these English classes had upwards of fifty students, which made classroom management a perpetual tooth and nail struggle.

On the plus side, however, Kinfe did have his class organized into groups. Conventional wisdom holds group work to be one of the best methods of militating against the classroom management problems intrinsic to large, multilevel classes. Getting that right, Kinfe went even further in that direction by assigning a team leader to every group. It was their responsibility to disseminate classroom directions and keep their group on task. But group work can be a double-edged sword in a culture with too much of an affinity for it.

For better or for worse, the culture here is one that, to some extent, sanctions cheating. Such permissiveness is germane to the culture of community-first that prevails here. As a result, Kinfe’s overreliance on group work cultivates cheating. But in an Ethiopian’s eyes it is not cheating per se. It’s helping your friend, being a good neighbor, being selfless. Indeed, to students and teachers alike, allowing someone to copy your work is a merely an extension of Samaritanism, an integral part of being Ethiopian. It’s by no means uncommon to see teachers – yes, teachers! –copy each other’s lesson plans. For me, the wacko American, it’s a practice that’s hard to swallow.

And then there’s corporal punishment to add another lump into your throat. Technically speaking, it’s illegal to hit a student in Ethiopia. But old habits die hard, and all of us education volunteers have had very uncomfortable run-ins with it. I want to say it was the first day I was observing Kinfe, or maybe the second, I don’t know for sure, but I do recall seeing a kid have a piece of chalk thrown at him and hit him square in the face. His offense, you ask? Hell if I know. And there were a few other incidents throughout that first week:  a knuckle spike on the top of the head, a lightning fast backhand to the cheek, and maybe a few other such displays of barbarism that I’ve managed to repress or sublimate by now.

At first I held my tongue, decided to bide my time until the end of the week. I didn’t want to burn a bridge I had spent months building by calling my counterpart out in the middle of his class and in front of all his students. Ethiopia, in some ways, is still very much a shame culture and, based on the experiences recounted by other volunteers, I figured it’d be best to confront him outside the confines of the school during the coming weekend.

And so I did. That Friday at the end of the first week was Nations and Nationalities Day (just one of the many holidays that mottle the Ethiopian calendar here) and so we had a half-day of school. I was on my way out, reeling from the fact that no one so much as mentioned the fact that it was a half-day until half the day was over, when Kinfe and the school director, Abreha, invited me to a café. It was not yet noon so I figured coffee or some tea would be in the offing. It was a holiday, though, and our destination boasted a drink menu consisting solely of beer. What better way to broach the subject of hitting children than over a few brewskies?

Surprisingly enough, my views on corporal punishment went over pretty well. They both readily acknowledged its illegality, that it is ethically abhorrent to hit a child, but they also strove to enlighten me with some cultural knowledge so I could better understand why it continues to happen. Apparently, parents still very much engage in corporal punishment as a means to maintain household discipline. As such, most kids, they argued, respond only to the corporal forms of discipline. I had to admit, they had a point, but a tenuous one at best. They asked me what we did for discipline and punishment in the States and I told them all about suspension, detention, etc. The more we got into it, however, the more I began to realize how untenable most of these Western forms of discipline are here. Take afterschool detention, for example. Teachers here are grossly overworked and underpaid as it is. Some commute an hour to and from work, which makes their every workday a solid two hours longer. Moreover, maintaining the household is more of a full-time job here than in America being that these folks live in a country where clothes are washed by hand, where food is often prepared over a coal fire, and where nearly every other act of domestic upkeep isn’t facilitated by some machine. As such, there aren’t very many teachers eager to volunteer their already strapped time for the oversight of an afterschool detention. Nevertheless, I did manage to have both my counterpart and school director agree to abstain from using corporal punishment so long as I am around. I simply told them that, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am also a representative of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and, as such, I cannot condone corporal punishment without being obligated to report it.

Shifting to the second week, this is when things got fun. It felt good to be in command of a class and to wow the students with my wildly different teaching methodology. Although I stuck to the content of the teacher’s original lesson plan, I threw out the normal (boring) textbook exercise in favor of activities and games of my own creation that I thought would be more active and engaging. But this was no easy task. If you can grant me a little ego-petting, it does take some out-of-the-box thinking to make learning the past continuous tense any semblance of fun.

Although I can say with some confidence that my teaching was a success, I cannot say the same for the concomitant part of week-two – the part where Kinfe was supposed to start his own reflective journal. No matter how many times I showed him my notes from the first week and impressed upon him the necessity for doing the same, he’d somehow weasel his way out of it. At first he told me he didn’t want to waste the paper in his lesson-planning notebook, so I bought him a small notebook. Then he started saying that it’d be better to just tell me things verbally since he couldn’t write English quick enough to keep up with the pace of my class, so I told him to take notes in Tigrinya. Then, once I thought I had him backed into a corner, he started dipping out of class early because of his so-called social chair obligations. Granted, he was the school’s social chair, which meant he was charged with a whole slew of responsibilities that to this day I am still unclear about, but I nonetheless felt a twinge of betrayal when he’d dip out of my class without so much as a word of apology.

Now for some salt on the wound. An incident happened one day after Kinfe absconded. I had a student up at the board to write down their answer to some exercise question when a commotion from the nearest table whirled me around. A student, a rather diminutive stripling of a boy actually, was flying across the top of a table in the likeness of superman, fists balled up and both arms jutted out overhead. He barreled straight into a shrieking girl like a linebacker from ESPN’s top ten. The two of them crashed to the ground in a jumbled heap, taking two other students with them, and all pandemonium broke loose. Instinctively I raced to the scene and landed on the boy before he could land another blow onto the girl’s face. He had her pinned, her legs flailing helplessly, his arm cocked back for another swing, exposing his armpit like the strap of a backpack, and so I yanked him up off her with one arm like he was nothing more than a dumbbell awaiting a bicep curl. The look on his face – on all of the students’ faces – was priceless, probably because I might have loosed an angry stream of curses during the course of my intervention. Suffice it to say that they knew I was pissed off, and they’ve never seen me angry before. Never have I heard a class that quiet. Hoisting him in the air like I was doing a one-armed shoulder press lockout, I carried his limp, defeated body out of the class, across the school grounds and straight into the principal’s office. The student’s English and my Tigrinya were nowhere near commensurate enough to flesh out what the hell just happened, so I left him with the director to explain himself. I then marched back to the class, found all of the students still frozen in a speechless and thunderstruck state, and approached the girl to see if she was okay. She seemed fine enough, a little shaken up, and so I escorted her to the principal’s office.

I never did find out what the hell happened to cause that ruckus. Who knows? Those kids probably don’t even know. All I know is that that probably wouldn’t have happened if Kinfe was there in the class…

I talked to Kinfe about my disappointments at the end of this second week. I made it clear that if he wanted to participate in this mentorship program that he’d have to do things on my terms, that he’d have to actually be present for the whole mentoring part of it to work. I told him that I wouldn’t tolerate any more shirking of responsibility. If he had questions, he could ask; if he had other obligations, he’d better explain them. Judging from the hangdog look that he lugged around for the rest of the day, I assumed he damn well got the message.

Then came the co-teaching, which went well until Kinfe’s father got sick. It was a Wednesday, lunch time, we were lesson planning over a meal, mixing business with pleasure, fine tuning the morning lessons for the upcoming afternoon ones, when Kinfe received the phone call. I couldn’t understand much of anything with that rapid-fire Tigrinya they get to using, but I could see this shroud of concern descend like a storm cloud down onto his face. Despite his usual stoicism, his mien was unable to belie the fact that he just learned about some calamity befalling a loved one. Call finished, with tears welling up and a quiver in his voice, he asked me for permission to take a short leave from our business lunch. Ever the sucker for an older man one the verge of tears, I obliged and remained behind to wonder what could have happened.

When Kinfe came back inside the restaurant I asked what the matter was. I learned that his father most likely suffered a heart attack, and that he was in critical condition in a hospital in Wukro, a town about an hour outside of Mek’ele. What shocked me most, however, was that Kinfe didn’t come right out and say he’d be leaving for the day to go visit his (possibly) dying father. Instead, he said he’d remain with me to teach for the remainder of the day, that he could make the trip tomorrow, so long as it was alright with me.

“What?!”

I couldn’t fathom why he wouldn’t go, why he wasn’t rushing out that door right that minute. I urged him to go, to go now, but he resisted with protestations about the importance of our having to complete this week of the mentorship program uninterrupted. Our little talk from the previous week obviously left its mark, and now I was feeling guilty for perhaps having overdone it. So I continued urging him to go. His immediate concern, though, had to do with who would teach the kids for the remainder of the week if he had to overnight in Wukro. As mystified by his commitment as I was, it was nevertheless quite obvious that his true desire was to go and be with his family. He was perhaps feeling a little guilty for letting me down the previous week and was trying to make up for it with this show of deference and commitment. I told him that I could fill in for him, that he could take the rest of the week off if he wanted, and with that his eyes lit up with the realization that he was off the hook, forgiven, free to go and be with his family.

That moment revealed to me the truth of Kinfe’s dedication to my being a volunteer here in Ethiopia. There will always be misunderstandings between people of different cultures and upbringings. The differences – no matter how superficial they may be from a scholarly, anthropological viewpoint – can all too easily open rifts in a relationship. Friendship can be lost in that abyss, swallowed up by pride and stubbornness. Indignation and spite can race to fill the vacuum left behind, and so it is that self-righteousness comes to bests the better, more humane parts of human nature. It takes a shock, a truly visceral display of humanity to mend what was broken. In our case, it was Kinfe’s dedication to the success of the mentorship program. He proved that what always remains are the universals, the core values that all of us humans share in common, regardless of culture or language. Integrity and respect are two of these, and they stand as a testament to our friendship.

Potty Talk

A quick Google search revealed that the average person spends around three to five years of their life sitting on the toilet.

A second Google search revealed that Ethiopia has the least amount of toilets per capita than any other country on Earth.

Why do I make mention of such ridiculous facts, you ask?

Bear with me…We’re going to do some math…

If you take the number of years I’ll be living in Ethiopia (2 years) and divide it by the average American’s life expectancy (78.2 years according to Wikipedia),  the resultant quotient (.02558) represents the percent of my life that will be spent living here in Ethiopia.

Still following? Good.

If you multiply that quotient (.02558) by the aforementioned average amount of time that someone spends sitting on a toilet (4 years), then the resultant product (.10232 years) represents the amount of time that I’ll spend on the toilet whilst living here in Ethiopia.

(Did you like how I inserted that ‘whilst’ into that last sentence? British English makes anything, no matter how crass, seem more proper, cleaner even.)

If you do some more math that figure above works out to roughly 1.25  months. Theoretically – and let me remind you, this is all mere speculation – that’s how long I’ll be taking care of business here.

But wait. Oh yea, that’s right, we don’t have a toilet.

We have what’s called a shint bet:

20121129_131654

By the end of service I’ll have spent approximately one-and-a-quarter knee-buckling months squatting over the obsidian abyss you see above.

And living here, what with all the exotic foods and questionable water, we get the screaming squirts – by which I mean that military-grade high-explosive diarrhea – much more often than you folks back home.

So, if you may, and if you can forgive my potty talk, let that picture up above melt into your mind for a moment.

Done?

OK. Thanks for your time. I mean it. And now, dear reader, time for your reward.

Appreciate for a moment the glory and splendor of your porcelain toilet. How glad are you to have a toilet – a shitter with a seat! – an actual place, sometimes comfy, sometimes not, to sit and lounge and, hell, read a book if you wanted to!

Now ain’t that the shit.

ethioepic ethiopia

Mekele to Bahir Dar VSO

the Ishi Bekka Chronicle

The Ishi Bekka Chronicle and bonus features... which in no way represent the views or opinions of the Peace Corps, or the United States government, yet still manage to be enjoyable. If you'd like to contribute to the Ishi, contact us at ishibekka@gmail.com.

Courtney in Ethiopia

My meanderings as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia

alternatenavigations

Travels and Plans of a PCV in Ethiopia

Reflections from Around the World

The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Salem Y'all

From PC Graduate to PC Volunteer

shayna in ethiopia and beyond

I am now finished with my Peace Corps Service. For more information about Ethiopia, check out my posts before August 2014

Rwanda Conservation Agriculture

Updates and Issues from MCC's Conservation Agriculture Program in Rwanda