Our Host Family, or, On Being A Child Again

by Scott McAllister

My last post was a hurried, whirlwind brief on my and my wife’s pre-service training (PST). Yet, stitched within this rich learning experience, there is a tapestry of Ethiopian life that I, for the sake of time, had to omit – until now.

I am speaking of the host family that Jessi and I lived with for those ten laborious weeks. I’m also speaking of, in terms of responsibility, becoming a feckless child all over again. Confused? You’ll soon see what I mean.

Our family – born-and-raised natives of the small mountain town that is Bekoji – was selected for us by the Peace Corps staff. The vetting process was based, we were told, upon past volunteer experiences, a scrupulous round or two of interviews and, of course, an inspection of the house (would our room have a roof? is there running water, or at least a well of sorts nearby? would we have a bed? sheets? where was the closest hole in the ground for taking care of business? – that sort of inspection).

We were still in Addis Ababa – the capital – when we learned of our host family placements. All sixty-nine of us, Jess and I still feeling dizzy and nauseous from ill-adjustment to the altitude, were gathered in a sweltering room in the basement of our hotel. We didn’t know much about the sites in the pool, but we were told that Dera, the northernmost, was the hottest and that Bekoji, the southernmost, was the coldest. Cold in Ethiopia? Please, we thought. Nevertheless, we crossed our fingers with the hope that Bekoji would become our site. We desperately wanted a change, a little respite, from the Florida heat that we had known our whole lives.

The announcements were made, some groans of dissatisfaction mixed with some sighs of relief were loosed in response, and, for us and eight other lucky souls, Bekoji it was. Naturally, we sheepishly herded together with our soon-to-be CBT (community-based-training) site mates. We had all been given little leaflets with a rundown of our host family, and so we braggartly compared them.  Names, ages, vague occupation titles, number of children and cryptic allusions to the compound’s quote-unquote amenities were limned on these leaflets. Our host dad and host mom’s names, being extremely difficult to pronounce or remember at first, soon became fodder for some amusement as we took turns taking stabs at the proper pronunciation. Then, someone pointed out to us that, according to our leaflet, a hot shower was reputed to exist in our future home. Openly, blatantly – loudly – we relished this revelation.

The ten of us slated to live in Bekoji arrived after dark, before the rain clouds that twilight illuminated ominously looming above the mountains decided to let loose. That deluge would be later. As per the Peace Corps itinerary, our host families were assembled at Bekoji’s nicest hotel, eagerly awaiting our arrival. The plan:  dinner would be served and greetings would be exchanged, then we’d be on our way to our respective houses. Traditional dancing to traditional music had been rumored to be the evening’s capstone event.

A score of eager expectant faces honed in on us as we filed into the cramped, luridly lit hotel conference room. A representative or two of each family was seated behind a large U-shaped table opposite us. There wasn’t much room up front to stand around, but we didn’t know who our match was yet, so we awkwardly moseyed around the vacant space inside the U greeting everyone we approached in our pidgin Amharic, all the while craftily stealing glances at the upside down name cards that rested atop the table. Stealthily, we soon enough found our host mom seated in the back.

She was young, seemingly too young, fashionably dressed and hip in demeanor. Her name, she told us with the biggest smile, was Tigist. Our stab at the pronunciation was spot on! We told her our names. She asked us their meaning. Fumbling for an excuse, failing to even improvise something lame, we folded and told her that they had none. Something like disappointment twinged across her face – you could see it, whatever it was, in the sudden scrunching of her eyes – but it was soon washed away by the most affable smile either of us had seen in a long, long time. Her name, we were told with the same bright smile, meant patience. We tried to do as much of the talking in Amharic, but soon discovered that Tigist was more than capable of conversing in English. It wasn’t the most fluent of English, was wrought with malapropisms and solecisms, but it was infinitely more developed than our Amharic. Besides, it was all to easy to tell that she enjoyed being able to use it with us native speakers.

Dinner was over before we knew it and coffee – strong, jet black coffee – was served. Our nervous systems washed in caffeine, our stomachs stuffed with all sorts of new and weird foods that we doubted would stay down, the rumor about the postprandial dancing was vindicated. So we all took turns making fools of ourselves by hopping around on one foot while the opposite hand repeatedly raised the roof. Despite the discomfort from all the food and drink, we were in high spirits and danced accordingly. It was obvious that our host families appreciated our adventurousness.

We were to take turns to be bussed to our new homes. Luckily, Jess and I were in the first departing group, for, moments after getting our luggage inside the house, it started to rain, then pour, then, a little later, hale. We felt bad for the others that got caught in the rain, but only for a moment. Our attention was too soon turned to meeting our new family.

Our host mom, as I said, was Tigist. She was 24 or 25, she couldn’t say for sure since birthdays aren’t really celebrated after age eight or nine here in Ethiopia. Her husband’s name was Solomon. He was a little older, perhaps his early thirties, but we couldn’t ascertain it for sure since his English, like our Amharic, wasn’t all that good. So we shook hands several times, took turns gesticulating our profound gratitude – us for his hospitality and his for…I don’t know what for, why should he have been thanking us?! Anywho, we soon met their four daughters. The oldest, Meaza, was about twelve. Genet was ten or so. The two younger girls, Nanati and Yekerwondu, were four and two, respectively. Verily, our house was a little harem, especially since our host father – one of the wealthiest and busiest business men in all of Bekoji – was out of it so often with his work.

And yet it was a harem of a house that we grew to love. When we weren’t away at class, or holed up in our quaint little room studying/reading, we were rollicking around the yard with the girls, playing some game that they either invented just for us or had been playing lifelong – we couldn’t tell.

Tigist was always eager to converse with us, as we were with her, and topics of conversation covered nearly everything. From her:  How was this and that in America? Does everyone own a car? Street lights are everywhere? What did you learn in school? Are all married couple so close to each other in age? No, I don’t believe you. No, that is not possible. etc. etc. From us:  Why is such and such like so and so in Ethiopia? How many regions are there? What languages do you speak? How many kids does the typical wife have?! Why do you eat the food you eat? etc. etc.

What was interesting throughout all of this was that we seemed to learn just as much about America as we learned about Ethiopia. The exchange of viewpoints flipped our perspectives and surprisingly instilled us with a greater appreciation of America, in addition to a dawning knowledge of just what constitutes Ethiopian culture. Cultural practices that we took for granted in America – not staring at strangers or not using your cell phone in the middle of a meeting, for example – were recast as quirky peculiarities that we should cherish. I won’t even delve into the more material differences, such as toilet facilities. I’ll save that for another day when I’m at my wit’s end and need to vent.

Tigist and her daughters also taught us the true, extreme meaning of hospitality. Every meal was prepared for us, yet we had no say in determining the content of this meal. Sure we’d let her know if we didn’t like a particular dish, but most of the food was palatable or, rather, edible. Being more or less unable to control our diet was a throwback to childhood when you had to either eat what was on your plate or not eat at all.

It was a sort of running joke with our fellow trainees that host family life was childhood redux. Beyond the inability to control your diet, privacy took the next big hit. Ethiopian culture is inherently communal; home life is more open and shared than what we’re used to in the states. To speak of personal space in Ethiopia is to dream. Siblings share the same room and, more often than not, share the same bed. Some doors don’t close:  they’re permanent fixtures of openness. Our home was no exception. If we wanted to be alone we would have to close – and lock – our bedroom door. If the window was left open, we could count on one of our host sisters peeping their cute little face in to see what we were up to. Curiosity reigned the day. Being alone was a luxury.

Remember curfews? That, too, existed. It was an unspoken rule, but one that we stuck hard and fast too. Being out late simply wasn’t safe. Sure, there were your crazies, thieves, drunks, etc. But this is Africa:  hyenas own the night. So we’d be home by sundown, or shortly thereafter.

And then there was laundry. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any washing machines or dryers in the rural parts of Ethiopia. As such, we had the privilege of doing it by hand. Jessi had some experience at this having lived in Zambia for three months. I, on the other hand, had the gauziest notion of what to do. I knew buckets were involved. So, too, was water and soap. Some mixing of things around, some wringing out of sudsy water, and then hanging the stuff up to dry. That was it. Right?

Ha, not exactly, not quite. Not knowing where anything was located, we had to rely on Tigist to find the buckets and to learn which spigot to draw the water from. But, of course, asking her these questions tipped her off that we were wanting to do laundry. Naturally, she insisted on helping.

Being a man, it’s somewhat taboo for me to be involved in something traditionally deemed by Ethiopians as women’s work. Not being the lazy sack of bones that some would like to make me out to be, I heartily insisted on helping out. After all, goal two of the Peace Corps is the sharing of American culture, and I was bent on doing my part to elucidate the state of gender equality extant in America.

To the women of our compound – and the neighboring ones – my involvement with the laundry soon became  the object of much attention and not just a little chuckling. Having never done this before, my plan was to simply copy what I saw Jess and Tigist doing to the clothes. Their method, I stealthily espied, was to submerge the article in the suds and then sort of knead the fabric in a rolling motion. If there was a stain they’d rub at it vigorously. Once convinced of its cleanness, they’d soak the article in a second bucket of clearer water. After the soap was rinsed out, they’d wring out as much water as possible and then toss it on the clothesline. I followed suit and replicated the same process, or so I thought. Tigist was constantly correcting me, and Jess joined in by basking in my bewilderment. Apparently my kneading wasn’t kneading enough, or my rinsing wasn’t thorough enough. But I persevered. I learned. I washed them clothes. And now, today, I am proud to say that I can do it just as well as any woman. So boosh.

Now, I could go on and on about our host family, but too much of it would be vague and nonspecific; it’s been a little over a month since we’ve last seen them and my memory has been racked by all sorts of happenings here. Even so, one other particular day does stand out, and it will give you, I think, a more fitting snapshot of the spirit of generosity and hospitality that animates Ethiopian culture. The day was the day that an Ethiopian runner from Bekoji won Olympic gold in the marathon. Did you see it?

We did. We had been out to lunch at a restaurant with a few of our fellow trainees. On the way back, Jessi and I decided to stop for a spot of tea at our usual place. We march up the stairs into the hotel and see that it’s standing room only. Normally, when a ferenji enters a room, it’s a big deal and all eyes turn to you. Not so this time. Our skin could have been polka-dotted and I still don’t think a soul would have averted their gaze from the TV mounted in the corner of the ceiling. Nonplussed at what’s going on, we eventually look up to the TV everyone is staring at and see this gal running at a near sprint. We put two and two together and figure it’s the Bekoji girl about to finish and win the women’s marathon. Someone had told us the day before that that event was slated for that day. With an unfounded sense of pride, since we’re not Ethiopian but rather American, we lingered in the doorway to watch, feigning passionate interest. Soon, however, we were hollered at.

The call came from our host family, sitting at perhaps the best table for viewing smack dab in the middle of the room. They were motioning for us to join them. Walking over and grabbing a seat, I noticed that the table was strewn with empty beer bottles. A party was in full swing. What started as a benign outing for tea quickly turned into a roaring episode of beer and cultural food with our host mom and dad.

If you’re from somewhere sea-level like Florida, and if you move to a place some 12,000 feet high, you’ll soon discover that you’re a cheaper drunk than a malnourished toddler.  We wouldn’t even be halfway done with a beer before our host father would furtively order us a second, third, fourth, fifth… we soon lost count, in other words. Then, next thing we know, a big platter of food is dropped off at our table. Looking at it I see that it is the infamous national dish of Ethiopia:  kitfo.

What is kitfo? Raw meat. Plain and simple. Raw beef to be exact, sometimes in squarish chunks like a diced up new york strip, sometimes ground to a mushy pulp like the chuck you’d make burger patties with. The dish that magically appeared before us was the latter, and it was a deep, ermine red owing to the gratuitous amount of berbere dashed on top. We had been told countless times not to eat this food. It was raw meat. Tapeworm, amoebas, typhoid – all sorts of nasty diseases could be festering within this uncooked visceral matter. All our reason admonished against eating it. But what good is reason when matched against the power of the gorsha?

The gorsha. Another unique trapping of Ethiopian culture. A gorsha, simply put, is when one person feeds another – by hand, always by hand. Often exchanged between married folk as a sign of endearment, a gorsha extended to a non-intimate signifies deep friendship and respect. So, when Tigist loaded her hand with a hefty mouthful of kitfo and extended her arm across the table to me, how could I refuse? What protest could have countermanded the hospitality alight in her smile? None, that’s the answer. So I ate the kitfo, and damn did it taste good! So good, in fact, that I urged Jessi to try, but my goading was needless since Tigist was already scooping up another handful of the delectable raw meat with which to gorsha Jessi. Tender, savory and rich in flavor like some really tasty sushi, the kitfo went down the hatch without a hitch. But, to be safe, we ordered two shots of straight gin to kill whatever might have gone down with it. It’s highly doubtful if alcohol of this sort would have any effect on tapeworms or other ingested bacteria, but we did it for peace of mind, and since our host dad was footing the bill. But hey, it’s been months now and we’re fit as fiddles!

Even son, life here in Ethiopia hasn’t been entirely devoid of your atypical ailment. I did have Typhoid, after all. Yea, Typhoid fever, it’s still around. You might have read about it in some old Victorian literature, when it’s lethality made for an author’s dream deus ex machina. But I hasten to say that my sickness occurred before our dabbling with kitfo, so there’s no connection; boy scout’s honor.

Well, I hope I did our host family justice with this post. Their generosity was our rock during the maelstrom that was pre-service training. We stay in touch with Tigist quite regularly – spoke to her today actually – and hope to visit them once or twice more during our service here in Ethiopia. We’ve even been invited to Christmas at their place, and hope to make it, but the logistics of getting there are a little complicated, our home now being so far north in country.

My next post, since this one is seeming to fizzle out now, will tackle Typhoid. Honestly, it wasn’t all that bad – in hindsight, that is. Oh, and I will get around to my birthday and how that went. First things first though.