Last week I told my host family, “I have training in Chilimo for the next two weeks.” They gasped, then repeated “Jiboch. Bizzu Jiboch allaw.” Hyenas. Lots and lots of hyenas are there.
With that in mind, I set off to Chilimo, an awesome park in the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. We have been primarily studying perma-culture, the study of how to maximize land use for sustainable food production. Ideally, a family could acquire all of their food needs from an area the size of a living room.
I was skeptical at first, remembering I had tried harder in school after summers of manual labor. Nevertheless here I was, a wooden pickaxe in hand, digging into Ethiopia. And yet, I can honestly say, I really enjoyed the week.
We have learned how to use a branch, a piece of string, and a rock to find level ground on a sloped piece of land to collect water. We have learned that it is smart to grow beans along with corn, and a big mistake to grow beans near onions. In the classroom, we have studied how to use the land for economic gain. I have learned methods that can help me with my coffee co-op, made connections with business owners, and studied how to develop and market rare commodities. A small project I hope to do at my site is to dry mango, banana and papaya fruit, and sell them to tourists hiking in the Simien and Bale mountains. All the proceeds would go towards generating income for an orphanage or perhaps individuals living with HIV. The peace corps is really all about finding innovative ways to improve life with limited resources.
I remember graduating from college and thinking… I can perform a SWOT analysis and accrue financial data, but I have no tangible skills. I just have a more expensive brain filled with a ton of dumb acronyms. Learning how to actually make something- out of nothing-requires knowledge, demands patience, and is entirely therapeutic.
But if there were only one thing to take out of training it would be this:
We have a trainer, a silent badass. an African agricultural Miagi, who told me about his first trip to the U.S.
He said, “my first time to the U.S. I cried. I openly wept.”
I could see the sadness in his eyes as he recalled, “…the sprinklers, pouring gallons of water on top of grass. GRASS!?!? To know what this water would mean to millions of Ethiopians, it broke my heart.”
I guess my kids will have to play soccer in the dirt. Maybe one of them will be used to it.
I have a moustache. Basically this means that I’m a man now. I can sleep on the couch. I can read a newspaper on the toilet and wear a top hat. I can listen to Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan without being a stoner, and I can wear aviators on a daily basis. I can probably fly a plane. I can drink scotch and fall asleep watching the news. I can do woodwork in my spare time and yell at politicians on TV.
Yes, I’m a man now.
The Beauty of Pixar
I have a game for you: name something American that is better than Pixar movies…
Maryland Crabs smothered in Old Bay? 64 ounce steaks? Jennifer Love Hewitt circa 1998? Snood? Monday Night Football? All you can eat Sushi Buffets?
All fantastic things, but Pixar gets my vote.
Pixar represents a company that operates differently than most. They could easily double their efforts, making four or five movies a year. Rather, Pixar focuses on the perfection of their characters, story lines, and animation. They focus on the process, rather than production, perfection rather than profit.
I’ve only come to fully appreciate their movies in the past couple days.
My posse of kids who wait at my door has been growing exponentially. It started out with my two brothers and has grown to a few dozen neighbors and friends. I have literally been reduced to the role of a clown. Kids expect me to dance, make jokes, give plastic gifts in the shape of animals, and younger kids are, at first, scared shitless of me.
When I offered to show my entourage a movie, I got 20 immediate RSVPs.
My host brothers always request bloody war movies, but for a more diverse audience I turned to the most recent Pixar film, “Up.” Making up the audience was my favorite three year old, Kidest, a sixty year old grandfather, and everything in between.
To watch them is to watch a 6 year old playing a video game for the first time, the exaggerated movements, as if they were driving a car themselves. Kids were literally running around the room, screaming, gasping, shouting “RUN!!!” personifying the emotions the creators visualized. The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers, unblinking. The grandfather was riveted, Kidest was beaming. The movie was a unanimous success. The following nights we watched Ratatouille and Monsters Inc.
Yes Pixar gets my vote for the best thing America has to offer. Well, except for running water.
In language class we learned how to use conjunctions to connect continuous thoughts. For example:
Yih Samint, Sim allegn. Bemkatilo Samint Fikrana Gin Yallagnim
This week I have a moustache, however next week I will not have a girlfriend.
The bus picks me up at 7 am and we drive for about an hour. I’ll either talk to a friend (I love talking) or look out the window (I love looking out the window). We pass rows of teff, now turning a shade of red as the dry season approaches. Kids as young as six break up the sea of green, herding a dozen or so goats or sheep.
When we arrive, we walk a half-mile to our training center. On the way I will talk to some of new friends. We cross a bridge that a week from now, one of us will break our leg on. Along the way I will strike up a conversation with one of my new friends.
Seth is a natural leader. He is well spoken and is ridiculously strong. He trained as a bodybuilder and is absurdly ripped, so we have that in common. We talk about our past and future travels. I tell him about Carly and our adventures in Europe and he tells me about traveling through South America, living for free in a program that partners willing workers with organic farmers.
John and Spencer are two of the funniest people I have met in my life. Johnny is our version of Michael Cera and Spencer has a perfect sense of humor. I could talk to them for days about absolutely nothing, and we have become a little too capable of making each other laugh. Ramona and Tracy, the other members of my language class, are really smart and really in love. Being with them everyday makes me want to A) throw up and B) do the Peace Corps with Carly. Tracy knows everything about anything and Ramona has become my pseudo big-sister here.
Along the way I might stop and talk to Campbell, my soccer partner and a former white water raft guide, or Chase –Californian in every possible way– and a former volunteer in Madagascar. I might talk to Anna, a scrabble champion, Bob and Nancy, our parents/professors for this trip or Brandon and Mark. The three of us connected by the shared bond of graduating from College in May and missing our girlfriends back home.
Kids will come up to us asking for money, or water bottles. Most of the kids here are more rural and traditional, their families living on the land for perhaps thousands of years. Traditionally, they wear a small patch of hair on their heads. The logic behind this is heartbreaking. Because so many kids die before they see adolescence, the hair patch is supposed to act as a handle for God to pull them up to heaven.
The other day, our hike interrupted a much more important gathering. A woman had died of typhoid fever, and her loved ones were carrying her casket up the mountain for burial. She was 26.
Ethiopians express love and emotion much differently than Americans do. It is rarely spoken and often simply assumed. Adults rarely cry or express love, but dote upon and brag about their children endlessly. During a funeral, all the bottled up thoughts, unsaid words, and tears explode from those in mourning. The wailing is bone chilling, the cries undeniably human and eerily inhuman. The crying and sobbing will last all day and through the week, perhaps months. Those in mourning will wear black for years.
A perfect reminder that you should never save love for a rainy day.
My future life:
This morning we gathered in Holeta to find out our future sites. I can’t put into words the anxiety and speculation that preceded this morning. My heart was racing as they called my name and my future town:
Bonga, in the Kaffa forest.
To say that I got lucky is a vast understatement. My director took into account the little she knew about my preferences and myself and picked the perfect spot for me. I will paraphrase my guidebook to show you how excited I am:
The medieval kingdom of Kaffa, whose name is immortalized as the derivative of the words Coffee and Cafe, lies to the southwest of Jimma.
Bonga is an attractive town, sprawling along a high ridge that offers some stunning views of the surrounding forested slopes, and studded with a few buildings that must date to before the Italian occupation. A more convincing reason to visit Bonga perhaps is the opportunity to visit the Bonga Forest Reserve. These are among the last remaining sub-tropical forests of any size to be found in Ethiopia, and are renowned for their abundance of sustainable non timber forest products: coffee, cardamom, forest pepper and honey.
These closed canopy forests also host a large number of monkeys, babboons, and animal life. They also boast natural features such as waterfalls and hot springs. Beautiful campground can be discovered by guides on Horseback.
The awesome history of Bonga and the Kaffa Region.
According to legend, Kaffa is the birthplace of Coffee, rumored to be discovered by a local monk from Bonga in the 3rd century. This monk realized that his livestock became energetic when they ate the plant. When he showed his spiritual superiors, they ridiculed him for bringing stimulants to a house of God and threw the beans in the fire.
Incensed by the smells, they apologized, experimented with the bean, and were the first humans to taste what we know as coffee.
For 1,000 years Coffee remained a regional secret, until Venetian Merchants came to Ethiopia in the 16th century. The Kaffa region became the exclusive proveder of Cofee for all of Italy for most of the 16th – 18th centuries, traveling from Ethiopia to Venice and elsewhere. The rest, as they say, is history. So the next time you go to starbucks, just remember to thank a 1700 year old monk and his hyper goats.