This is the video I’ve put together highlighting the school rebuild project. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this project a success.
This is the video I’ve put together highlighting the school rebuild project. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this project a success.
I’ve been very busy with our school project, and am deliriously excited to put up before and after pictures. First here is a look at some of the progress we made recently. The last few months have seen great changes that I have noticed in the physical structure of the school, and intangibly in myself and in the community.
This has without a doubt been the most difficult undertaking of my life. From the allocation and attainment of resources to the management of a leadership team of five it has been gratifyingly challenging. There were hard days and tough decisions that we made together. There was the week in which we could not work due to the rain. There was the personal dilemma I faced as I questioned my own role. I wanted so much to help the school, but was constantly afraid that the work would continue the stereotype that all white people are rich – that we come and spend and leave. In the end, I hope that the legacy was based not on bricks but on capacity building. The awesome thought that they could have done this without me.
The most important difference is the attitude of the leaders, teachers and neighbors of the school. Recently, a father offered to add a layer of cement to all of the interior classrooms for a fraction of his normal price. He is also painting the classrooms free of charge. For weeks, 70 or so volunteers showed up to lend a hand. Now that school is in session, we can only work in the afternoons or on the weekends.
Jon and I, as well as my European friends from a local NGO have been painting and taught and installed our “solar light bulbs.” The teachers were amazed when they saw it. Their dark, muddy and dank classroom is now filled with light and color. In one of the photos you can see the new laboratory/classroom that we are building, highlighted by new roofing and brick interiors. It will allow the classroom held under a tree to move indoors.
It has been a joy to watch the physical transformation. More importantly the cultural transformation is beautiful. From the first day, I’ve tried to instill a sense of ownership for the leaders of the project and community members. This is your work, not mine. I’ve also taken a back seat, and allowed leaders to emerge. The vice principal Kero has been a joy to work with. He has learned so much about community mobilization and construction, and he and the principal glowingly discuss their plans for the future. They want to raise funds and continue to improve the school. That is the greatest achievement of the school – the idea that I’ve worked myself out of a job.
Tomorrow we will finish the painting, the last step in our rebuilding process. The laboratory is finished, but still needs the cement flooring. The materials are in place, but I will not see this last piece – the cemented floor of the newest classroom. To me, that is the greatest joy. The feeling that I trust my friends to finish it without me, with money they raised to supplement the project. This is the beginning not the end.
Enjoy the pictures. On Sunday I will post the final ones. Thank you so much for all of your support!
I recently calculated that I’ve spent just under 2 months of my Peace Corps Service on a bus. For those keeping track at home, that is about 8 weeks longer than you would ever want to spend on public transit in Ethiopia. This was time spent looking out the window, time spent answering questions about the United States, and plenty of time overhearing gossip about myself. 2 months of beautiful scenery, near collisions, shy kids with sweaty hands, and market-day rides filled with fermenting grains and goats on the roof. This elongated time aggregates to likely several hours of being airborne, owning a tailbone and kneecaps that will never forgive me, and finally, hopefully, a few moments of clarity.
A few months ago, I interviewed our incredible doctor, Dr. Wuhib, for a piece in our newsletter. I asked several questions including what his favorite thing about Ethiopian culture was. While the other questions took no more than a second to answer, Dr. Wuhib took his time with this response. He finally told me, “I have no idea how to say it or what the English equivalent is. It’s our… identity and togetherness.” I asked him if he meant a collective unconscious. He said yes, but more like a collective identity.
Just recently, I came back from a trip to Addis. It was a harrowing journey where I left for the bus station at 10am and arrived 220 miles later in Jimma at midnight. We changed buses three times, I bought two tickets, we waited four hours to even leave the capital city, and the driver stopped several times at friends’ houses along the way.
Progressively the bus, and myself, got a little angrier. At the point where folks in the US would have been threatening a lawsuit and/or a solid groin punch, the energy on the bus instantly changed. We laughed and shared jokes. It was a collective understanding, a white flag of acceptance rather than surrender. I could feel what Dr. Wuhib was talking about, and like him I find it hard to describe.
It was as if everyone subconsciously agreed that nothing could be done, this day was ruined. The only way to possibly salvage this unfortunate reality was a mutual understanding and a community effort to focus on the good. I instantly had new friends, and we all talked into the night, making friends, discussing work, and truly enjoying the beautiful misery of it all.
The wailing had seemingly stopped when Zena’s brother arrived from Deka.
I had stopped by the funeral with some popcorn for the family and guests. A neighbor told me that the third day of the funeral was appropriate for this kind of action and the snack was greeted with smiles and approval. This is the house of my next door neighbor. They are a great family, an extended family whose relations I don’t quite understand. I buy almost all of my produce from their little store, and we’ve shared meals and coffee several times. This group has the best behaved kids in the area. Fetsum just left for University in Jimma. He is studying pharmacy and was so disappointed he was not chosen for medicine that he has promised to work very hard for the chance to become a Doctor. Then there is Abbiye, the “gobez lij” (smart child) who was one of the brightest kids in his class.
Sadly, I’m at his funeral. He died at the age of 9 from tonsillitis.
The crying is truly brutal, the kind of sound that rocks you to your core. It lasted for three days, with loved ones taking over for crying duty when Zena, the mother, was too tired to cry. Wailers are sometimes even paid to cry on the behalf of the family. Jon and I could hear it from our homes, throughout the day, and lasting well into the night. The first day I went to the funeral she was buried under blankets. Jon looked at me and said, “that’s the saddest room I’ve ever been in.”
On this day, I was outside with several dozen people under the typical green canvas tent. It was quiet until the brother arrived from Deka. He walked down the path slowly, both screaming and crying. Zena greeted him at the doorway and together they called out to “Igzabhiyer” (god). The tone suggesting it was more of a demand ; an answer to the question of why. A few days later, I’m at Bekeles house, a large man with a bushy moustache who seems to have a never ending cold. He is the accountant for the school and I’ve been working with him a lot recently to manage our construction budget. His daughter just died, and she was 22. He is shaking while lying down, but his torso is upright, supported by a few pillows between his back and his house. His right elbow is on his stomach, his head buried in his upheld hand. No one is quite sure of how she died, but it’s believed to be either organ failure or the result of a mishandled abortion.
I excuse myself and head to the school. On the way, I pass Melis, the father of Abbiye. He is solemn, but it is a testament to his character that he is leaving his own funeral to support his neighbor.I get a call from Mesfin, a man I hold in the highest regard, who has helped me the most with the school project. His wife died 5 months ago from Cancer, diagnosed and on dialysis a little too late. When I arrive at the school, I say hello to Tekelu Radjimu, the second name a nickname indicating how tall he is. (roughly 6’8) He has done an amazing job as the labor organizer at the school. His management is terrific, his flexibility needed and his skills are apparent. The school looks beautiful. Unfortunately the tragedy extends to Tekelu, whose daughter died when a tree he was cutting down fell on her. She was seven. This was 2 months ago, yet Tekelu was working within two weeks. I will never forget his dedication or the empty look in his eyes as he sat with his brothers outside of their home. In the span of a few moments, I’ve crossed paths with friends and neighbors all reeling from the deaths of their loved ones.
This has taken me a while to write because of how hard it was for me to witness and to process. But writing is sometimes my therapy and a way I make sense of the things I’ve seen. I wonder what I could have done to prevent these tragedies, and what can be done in the future. I have also thought about these tragedies in the context of Ethiopia and the role of the development community. Recently, I have wrestled a lot with the notion of aide. At the grassroots level, we see how inefficient development work is. Notably I’ve learned that around 70% of development costs are administrative, and that the per diem for some drivers for UNICEF exceeds the salary of some doctors back home. According to one source, The UN per diem for workers in Kampala is 400 dollars per day. Additionally I’ve seen the attitude in which some outsiders perceive Ethiopia, and sadly I can’t claim to be innocent either. It is with pity, and perhaps a self-indulgent desire to help. To be honest, I’m pretty depressed with the state of giving, the entitlement it can create and the inefficient way in which it’s done.
I think about all of these things as I sit at these funerals. However I know that no amount of money is too much when it comes to global health. There is a monumental gap in the healthcare system between the haves and the have-nots. My neighbor just died of tonsillitis, and I don’t mind if money is occasionally wasted in a global effort to make sure that never happens again. `
I’m depressed and saddened but also inspired. Jon, Chuck and I recently teamed up with doctors from Northwestern and an organization called Peace Care. They taught midwives from throughout the region, using mannequins, and hands on lectures to teach over 70 professionals. Topics ranged from how to treat mothers who have postpartum hemorrhage and how to help a newborn baby breathe. They did an amazing job, and they saved countless lives through their sacrifice. One of the doctors, Adianez, stayed for a few weeks in Bonga hospital. A two year old came in weighing less than 4 pounds, severely malnourished and unable to feed or walk. She took a bus to Chiri to get a feeding tube for the boy and saved its life. The other day, my friend Brett and I watched as the baby, now 14 pounds, took milk from its mother.
So we can only hope that development work operates on a learning curve. I know these discussions are happening across the world. I hope that we can continue to improve the system, to know that smaller is sometimes better and to work to see that money intended to help those in need, goes to those in need. In terms of global health, I’ve come to realize how much work is left to be done. I hope we live in a world where we can see this gap, and to understand that no one should have to bury their child, and no one should die of tonsillitis. No two year-old should weigh four pounds. I have so much respect for those people who fight to bridge this disparity, and to the doctors who came here and saved the lives of local children. We need more of this in our world, not less. It’s a beautiful concept, perhaps realized by silence. The silence found when we work together to stop the wailing.
Recently, I’ve realized that my time here is winding down, and that I can no longer take for granted the out-of-this-world world I live in. Perhaps I’ve written here less because profound differences have become mundane, and I forget that a seemingly distinct moment is actually unique. The foreign and unfamiliar has become the status quo. So I’ve tried to soak up some moments, and etch them into my memory. Not big moments or memorable ones, but the sort of daily interaction that defines life for me here. Maybe then I can come return one day in my mind. I wrote this a few weeks ago, when I was trying to organize a volunteer work day at the school.
Yohanes’ house sits atop a small hill on the side of the main road. In the dry season, dust floats upward, leaving the once green grass a shade of yellow. But this is the rainy season, and getting up the small hill requires a few choices. A year ago, walking to Yohanes’ house was a thoughtless action, but things have changed. The road crews, bringing much desired asphalt to Bonga, have carved out several meters of earth, creating a small canyon with houses perched on top.
The stairs, made one afternoon by shovel but maintained by weeks of foot traffic, look more like a Jenga board. Like a Jenga board, certain moves will result in losing, quite literally. I make my way up the steep embankment using my hands as balance, avoiding one step layered with wet mud.
Yohanes is waiting in front of his house, which sticks out noticeably compared to his neighbors. The compound is long, with two room mud houses neatly pressed together like a townhouse squeezed in all directions. No wall is straight, no roof without rust. The doors and windows are equally uneven. In front of me is his neighbors suk, a small store distinguished by its lack of anything special. Most stores in Bonga offer exactly the same items, at exactly the same price. Social capital is the differentiation of Ethiopian capitalism. One Ethiopian Birr, (6 cents usd )will get you a bag of peanuts, while 18 cents gets you laundry soap and a 10 gallon, Chinese plastic bucket will set you back a couple dollars.
To the left of this store is a breakfast restaurant, literally a hole in the wall, that offers mediocre fried beans with spices, as well as fresh bread, slightly undercooked. On the left side of the restaurant a man is staring at me, an unknown Ballywood actor, shirtless, flexing, wearing nothing but a tie and underwear. The plastic poster can be purchased at the market for fifty cents. It’s pretty damn funny. How this Orthodox and Muslim town stands for this kind of thing is a mystery.
Yohanes’ house stands out as a result of his own sweat. He is the hardest working man in Bonga. His house has several rooms for rent in the back, built by himself and occupied by students and maids. He’s built a large chicken hut to the side, yet all the chickens are perched on top of it. His house, unlike his neighbors is built of brick, with a cement porch that he uses to watch the comings and goings of the neighborhood.
Yohanes is a smaller man with strong forearms, an oversized jacket, a baseball hat, a knowing disposition and a smile forged by decades of not brushing his teeth.
He greets me with a handshake-to-shoulder hug, and fourteen different ways to say hello. We do the song and dance, but it’s special with my new middle-aged friend. He genuinely asks and answers each question. It’s not an act of going through the motions, although the answers are always the same. Yep, I’m at peace, as is my family, and my friend Jon. I’m doing well, I’m fine. Everything is good.
The first time we met, he matter of factly stated, “You are Michael from Virginia. Your friend Jon is from California. You are Americans for Peace Corps. You are a happy man. I am Yohanes.”
He invites me inside. We spoke earlier and he asked me to stop by. We are organizing a community volunteer day, and I have put a lot of trust and hope in Yohanes. He is the man for the job all the folks have said.
He ushers me inside and at once I wonder if I’ve walked into a restaurant. The set up is deserving of this notion, with several tables and wooden stools in a large living room. There is a small amount of linoleum like plastic on the floor, but it is thin like paper, pink and white, worn and muddy and torn in many places.
As I turn the corner, I am comforted by the quintessential Ethiopian living room. Whereas the left side of his oversized room resembles a restaurant, this side is true to form: There is a china cabinet filled with an assortment of plastic plates and glasses, and a renaissance style poster of Mary and two angels. A TV, always on when there is power, is playing an Ethiopian music video. There are some nicer than usual sofas, a coffee table with strange, varied, placemats and in the corner a small charcoal stove that the maid is fanning frankincense into. The smell is awesome, drowning the smell of mud. The music video ends. In homage to 1984, the Ethiopian Telecom jingle comes on, followed by the daily news.
We sit down and start discussing the school. I tell him I want to get hundreds of people to the school to bring water, sand the doors and windows, and move the large piles of bricks delivered by truck. I need his help to convince everyone this is a great idea.
He is the head of the “idir” a Kiwanis like group of community members that provide services during emergencies and coordinate events. This is a centuries old group that I now know functions very well.
He explains to me that the letter for approval of this project has been delegated to Bekele. We must call him.
As Yohanes dials the number, slowly, with his ring finger pushing each button directly, his two daughters maybe three and four years old, emerge from the door. They’ve stolen a few glances at me already, before ducking behind the wall and stifling a few giggles. They have worked up the courage to enter the room.
As they approach I hear Yohanes talking, seemingly angrily at Bekele. It is not anger but just Ethiopian phone speak, or yelling as we say in America. Yohanes speaks into the phone as if it is a radio, then holds the phone backwards to his ear.
“I gave you the letter from Haile Bogale! Did you receive it? Where is it now. Has he read it? It is not! It is not!”
I make the time-tested assumption that this will be a difficult process.
The girls are now sitting on the loveseat, alternating their hands from being clasped together to being hung on their bottom teeth in nervousness. I ask them their names. “frshgs” says the older one, that not even herself could have heard her voice.
“Degemelegn” I ask her. Please repeat it. Instead, she puts her head in the pillow.
I finally get a name from the other daughter, or at least I think it is Meheret, meaning mercy. I like that name I tell her, and then state that she has a very smart father.
“Abate Aydelum” says the now confident girl, letting me know that Yohanes is not her dad. I learn he’s not her uncle either, but simply her neighbor.
“You have a very smart neighbor,” I tell her.
Yohanes hangs up the phone. The letter issue is not solved but his body gestures let me know we are on the move. We walk out of the house, down the muddy steps to the road and two houses down to Menagesha’s house. I learn along the way that the letter from Haile was given to Yohanes who gave it to Bekele who delegated the task to Menagesha. Classic Ethiopia.
Mengagasha is a hilarious and strong-willed elf of a man who conveniently wears a Santa hat. He produces the letter. The approval has been given, miraculously.
Yohanes and Menagasha exchange pleasantries and Yohanes approvingly looks at the letter. A few moments later, he is escorting me back to my house. He tells me that the volunteer day will happen tomorrow and many people will come. Doubtful, I seek some reassurance. (He was right, as around 80 villagers showed up with shovels, and old oil containers filled with water to make the mortar for brick.)
“Don’t worry! You will not believe how many people will come! Don’t Worry!” he tells me.
I trust him, although I really shouldn’t. How will he inform so many people so quickly?
“Don’t worry they will come. This is big work. They will come”
In front of my house we stop and shake hands and smile. I tell him
“Nege, abran inechewotalen” translation: “Tomorrow we will play together”
“Bedem. Innichewot Bedem bedem innichewot.”
We shall play so much. So much we shall play.
Here is a little video I put together of some of my footage over the past few years. I apologize for the camera quality and resolution, but it offers something that words sometimes can’t quite match. I hope you enjoy!
These are the moments that make Peace Corps worth the bucket baths, the 12 hour bus rides, the loneliness, and the waiting.