Hurry Up and Wait

by Scott McAllister

My wife and I have been in Mek’elle for a little over a month now. Pursuant to our Program Director’s explicit directive, we’ve been doing no real work whatsoever. But, before you write off Peace Corps volunteers as the deadbeat hippies pop-culture makes them out to be, let me clarify. I can assure you that we have not been frittering away the moments that make up the dull day (to borrow some verse from Pink Floyd). There simply haven”t been enough hours in the day for us to be loafing sacks of lazybones. We’ve been helter-skelter busy, running all over this town, this city of 200,000 plus.

I hear you. What have we been doing, you ask. I’ll tell you, but bear with me, it’s not going to be easy to distill our first few weeks of life in Mek’elle into one succinct blog post. It might take two. I like to write.

Peace Corps calls our first three months at site a period of community integration and adjustment. I’m sure they have some highfalutin acronym for this phase of our service, but it escapes me at the moment. Suffice it to say – in case any of our Peace Corps superiors are reading –  we’ve been making good, productive use of our time.

‘Integration’, in Peace Corps parlance, is a multifaceted process that runs consonant to some very specific, and scholarly, principles of community development. It requires the fulfillment of certain objectives, objectives such as practicing the local language, collecting statistics about our schools, conducting interviews with teachers and school directors, meeting and introducing ourselves to the local bigwigs and stakeholders, observing classes and making qualitative as well as quantitative analyses, meeting the chief of police, yada-yada-yada.

From these experiences we are expected, by the end of our first three months, to produce an academic report exhaustively detailing our community’s needs, the takeaway idea here being that we cannot begin to do proper work until we know what kind of work our community actually wants/needs. Grassroots sort of stuff. And it has a name, this whole integration process I mean. And this is actually a Peace Corps acronym I remember:  CENA (Community Educational Needs Assessment). Whole books, long-winded exegeses stashed away way up high in the cloistered ivory towers of academia, have been written about this sort of bottom-up research/analysis. I’m almost positive you can get a master’s or doctorate degree in this stuff. Community Development. And we’re doing it here in real time, real life. – Boosh –

This work we’ve been doing, this CENA, let me break it down for you.

It’s good work, very necessary. The main point, as I see it, is to ascertain the state of English language education as it currently exists, and, perhaps more importantly, to gauge the local stakeholders’ receptivity to making the positive changes that both they, the vested community members, and I, an outside representative of Peace Corps and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, collectively deem fit. Needs Assessment, the modish buzz word. In short, I’ll be spending the next two years toeing the line between what the Ministry wants and what local stakeholders want. And, despite the shortness of my time here so far, I’ve already seen how incongruous local and federal aims can be. Just like good ‘ol America, in a way. But more on that when I really come to an impasse, which is bound to happen in my two years here.

The mountainous breadth of information this CENA demands us to collect was dizzyingly daunting at first. Where do we start? Neither of us had done anything on this scale before. Sure I’ve written well-cited, academically abstruse and headache-inducing college papers treating the intersections of political and philosophical democratic theory in the 19th century, but those assignments were all lofty mind games, mental gymnastics far removed from the grisly reality of the here and now. But now, as I’m really get to thinking about it, I guess the rigorous methods of inquiry I developed and honed then are now paying off. This here – Ethiopia – is where the thousands and thousands of dollars I’ve accumulated in college debt have the chance to prove themselves unsquandered. So this is where critical thinking comes in handy. The CENA. Ohhhh.

It was a rough start, to put it mildly, with this CENA, but progress has been snowballing as of late. We were assigned counterparts before arriving to site. A counterpart is a local representative of the school system that Peace Corps sought out and assigned to us in order to facilitate our integration and the creation of the CENA. My counterpart, Kinfe, is an eighth-grade English teacher. Jessi’s, Igziharia, is the vice director of her cluster’s head school. What’s a cluster? What’s a head school? I’ll get to that, presently.

Schools here are organized into clusters according to the district within which they reside. Jessi’s cluster has eight schools. My cluster is comprised of a whopping thirteen schools. I don’t know the exact number, since student attendance is always fluctuating, but I’ve got somewhere around 10,000 students and scores of English teachers under my aegis. Daunting, yes. But this is to be expected. I’m in the capital city of Tigray after all, total population of this here city of Mek’elle peaking somewhere past 200,000. And besides, it all chalks up to a fair tradeoff when you consider all the creature comforts found in a city this size. And luckily I have an earnest, hardworking counterpart. Shout out to Kinfe!

So, about that rough start I mentioned.

We arrived to Mek’elle some two weeks before the ‘scheduled’ and government-mandated start of school. I knew that my counterpart would be all but dead to the world in terms of availability once school kicked in, since he’s a teacher himself, so I made sure to make the most of our time together during the two free weeks we had. I figured I’d start small and early, conduct some cursory introductions, make my rounds around the teacher’s lounge and have my face seen. So together we jaunted from school to school, meeting some teachers here, acquainting myself with a director there, practicing my pidgin Tigrinia all the while.

But two weeks was only enough time for me to visit just four of the thirteen schools in my cluster. The truth is that more pressing domestic issues demanded my attention in these first days. Our house came to us unfurnished. Save a spacious armoire generously infested with roaches, our three-room bungalow was all but barren. We needed all sorts of household things, and Kinfe – along with Jessi’s angelic, cherubic counterpart – graciously facilitated.

And then, after the passing of our first two weeks, the first of the month and new year came – the first of their month and their new year since Ethiopians have a completely different calendar than we do in the States. We say the year is 2012, they say it’s 2005. Anywho, the day after the new year’s festivities – the second day of the month called Maskaram – was slated to be the first day of school. Accordingly, and being the punctual and prudish American that I am, I show up early to my cluster’s head school, fully prepared to observe as many English classes as I can in one day. I was in sponge-mode.

Let me tell you about that day.

The walk from my house to this school is something like fifteen minutes, twenty if I’m feeling lazy or particularly hungover. I do have a bike, but I often don’t know where the day will take me, down what asphalt forsaken roads or pocked cobblestone back roads I’ll travel. Plus it’s hot, stupid sun-scorching hot, oasitic heat waves shimmering above the bitumen slabs splayed before me.  So I often leave the bike at home, chained to the latticework of wrought iron that imparts the look of a prison to our otherwise quaint little abode.

When I got to the school I saw a legion of green sweater clad students clamoring and hollering before the lancet arch gate of the school. An uncharacteristically virile septuagenarian stood guard behind the gate, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet, flourishing his cane about like a medieval cudgel, striking blows on any student that falteringly stumbled into his reach. But there was something comical about the whole scene. They all wore smiles, little knowing smirks, like everyone was complicit in some sort of perennial game, a prelude to every new school year.

I didn’t know what was going on, so I asked my counterpart when he arrived moments later. He informed me that these students were being told to go home, that the school wasn’t ready to start yet. Wait,  what?!

It turns out that this is quite normal here in Ethiopia. The calendar says school starts on day X, but in reality this only applies to the teachers and admin staff, not the students. The students start showing up when the administration figures out date Y, the actual start of school. This illusive, and at times illusory, date Y came about three weeks, three frustratingly workless weeks later.

So what were the teachers doing between date X and date Y?

They had meetings to plan meetings and met to discuss the content and focus of future meetings – for three weeks. Well, I can only guess as to what these meetings were actually about since every attempt on my part to attend them was rebuked by some canned yet politic line such as ‘This meeting does not concern you’. And, to be honest, I’m pretty sure these meetings didn’t concern me. I mean, they took place in Tigrinia. So then, considering that, I guess I’ll never truly know if my presence at these meetings would have been beneficial. It’s not like I would have understood a thing they were saying.

Despite my being out of the loop, our counterparts did their best to keep us updated. At first, on that day deemed the ‘official’ start of school and when I stood nonplussed outside the school gate, Kinfe told me school would start sometime in the middle of the week. He said the teachers and admin staff were going to meet and discuss it that day. I took him for his word, went home to find Jess sharing a similar story, and together, husband and wife, we decided to wander the sun-tortured streets of Mek’elle for the next few days, to become acquainted with the alien place we’d be calling home sweet home for the next two years.

Our counterparts would call us every afternoon at the end of the school day.

We said, “So when’s school starting?”

They said, “We do not have agreement yet. Still there is doubt.”

Cryptic conversations clipped and crippled by broken English. Never a clear answer. So we continued in our wanderings, indulged our wanderlust, ferreted out the pizzerias, burger joints, ice cream parlors and donut shops of Mek’elle. We read books, lots of books, voraciously. We perfected the art of the bucket bath, grew strangely accustomed to it actually. I found a gym and bought a membership. We talked to our counterparts on a daily basis.

One day they said, “School will start in one week.”

We said, “OK. Great. Can’t wait.”

That week flies by, during which we helped another Peace Corps volunteer in town organize a play day for the students of her blind school. We read more books. We endured stomach wrenching GI issues, the details of which I’ll spare you. We played host to fellow volunteers who had been assigned to the smaller outlying towns and villages of Tigray. They were desperate for the creature comforts we were so fortunate to have in such an absurd abundance, and so we played the part of the experienced tour guide, conducted them around town, caved to their every craving and obliged their least velleity.

Ring ring ring – the day before the aforementioned start of school.

They said, “School will start in fourteen days.”

We said, “Wait, what? There’s no school tomorrow? Fourteen days? Why?”

– Click –

I’ve learned that reasons are sometimes hard to come by here in Ethiopia. Like and endangered species. I once got an excuse for the cancellation of a meeting 30 minutes after the scheduled start of said meeting with the excuse, “I have a reason”. Then, before I could allay my bafflement with a followup question, click went the cellular and then nothing more.

The old jape hurry up and wait gains meaning.

But then school – school for the students I mean – did eventually start. And we became busy, have been ever since then.

From the seemingly simple act of pronouncing and remembering the Tigrinian names of our many schools, to the more stultifying task of familiarizing ourselves with the byzantine bureaucratic byways that govern these schools, we’ve had our hands full for the past few weeks. And let me tell you, these officials’ names are not one smidgen easier to remember or pronounce than the names of our schools. We’ve taken to spelling them in the ge’ez script so as to get the pronunciation down pat. Phonetic transliteration simply doesn’t work.

All in all those first two weeks weren’t that idle at all, more like a vertiginous whirlwind, a crash course in the culture and community life of Mek’elle.

Up next:  something about how we’ve been collecting the data needed to complete our CENAs.