I read an awesome article several years ago published on realclearpolitics.com. The author wrote about how it was often when he left America that he realized how American he really was. He quoted T.S. Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Here is the article: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/12/coming_home_to_america.html
This is possibly a different sentiment from many other international volunteers. Some believe their identity is more linked to their host country. I understand that sentiment very well. It’s easy to fall in love with a culture that promotes community over personal independence. But out here, I’m constantly reminded of how American I am.
I believe in individualism and in ice water. I better understand the joys of privacy and punctuality. If I set a meeting there is a 50% chance the person shows up. I miss my Grandpa’s code of the west, “your word is your bond.”
I miss the words please and thank you. I see a spirit of entitlement here and I pine for more American entrepreneurship. I miss the variety of America; that I can speak Spanish with my friend from Columbia in a Thai restaurant, drinking German beer while watching European Soccer. I miss affection between guys and girls. Either that, or I haven’t gotten used to how here in Ethiopia, guys are only allowed to hold hands with other guys.
There are definitely ways that the lifestyle here is better – the emphasis on family for one. The abstract nature of time here is both frustrating and relaxing. But I’m really not trying to compare the two countries. Its just ironic that I left America looking for something more. I found it, and yet I miss home. That is more of a universal idea though. Most Ethiopians who move to D.C. long to come back here. Everybody misses home.
So I’m understanding my roots and feeling a little homesick. Yet, all the while, I’m becoming more and more African as well. I’m adapting to life here; the demands, the obstacles, and the food.
After my impromptu speech at the wedding, and the teaching I’ve done at the schools, I’m developing a good reputation, and am integrated into the community. Many people today told me how much they enjoyed my presence at the wedding. They enjoy showing off their culture. They like that I am taking the time to understand it. Unlike other foreigners, I walk everywhere I go, just like them. I eat at the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, as they do. Along that vein, that is the one piece of advice I would give to future volunteers. Precedent, especially in the first few months is vital. By showing the people you live and act like them, you can earn their respect and integrate into their culture.
So little by little, the chorus of “you, you, you’s!” and “foreigner, give me money” chants are starting to die down. They are calling me by name, a sweet sweet sound.
The best example of my adaption to life here is a lesson in the Amharic language. Like many other languages, expressing the verb ‘to be’ requires tone and context. For example “Salaam No” can be both a statement and a question. “Are you at peace?” or “you are at peace!”
So a few months ago, I would often hear the phrase ‘lamerk’ It is a very common expression here, designated towards newcomers to a job, school, or location. It was always tonally phrased as a question. ‘Have you adapted?’
Now, I still hear the same phrase. But this time it is a statement.
“you have adapted!”
I’m starting that slow transition from foreigner to friend. Eventually it will happen. In the meantime, I can take some joy in the fact that I’m feeling more American while becoming more African.
I’ve been sick a large part of the last month. We haven’t had water in our spring in 10 days. The power has been out for two days. The internet is down and cell service is hard to find. This is my life.
So having been so sick, my landlady called the elderly priest from the Orthodox Church. She made me come into her house where he prayed over me and read from the Bible. He finished by, without telling me, splashing me with holy water that he had concealed. He doused me with probably a liter of water. Then he clasped both his hands around mine and kissed me on the forehead. This is my life.
Faith is such a major aspect of life here. Several things about religion here in Ethiopia stand out to me. One terrific aspect of Bonga is the co-existence of Muslims and Christians. The town is about 70% Christian Orthodox but they live in absolute harmony with the Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. This brotherhood is a fostered culture based on mutual respect for ones religion. This relationship will be incredibly important in the future – especially in this region of the world.
Also notable is the commitment and dedication of men and women to their religions. On holidays, Ethiopians from 30 miles away will walk to Bonga and sleep outside the Church for days. They will eat very little and pray and sing through the night. Church services last up to 6 hours on a weekly basis, Priests will proselytize for an entire night. Funerals can last weeks. These are a very dedicated people when it comes to God.
I’m not a very spiritual person. Perhaps I am, but in my own way. My mom cries everytime she prays, which is often. But that is because she is an angel.
I’m just of the opinion that there is no one “right” religion. Islam is a beautiful religion, as is Christianity. It’s a shame when radicals, such as the Westboro Baptist Church and more egregiously, the Taliban, distort the true message of these religions.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the incredible spirituality here. People across Ethiopia have very few things. Disease claims many young lives. Birth rates are low. Starvation is not common but malnourishment is rampant. Life often plays out as a tragedy. When the two kids died at the hospital last month after a tree fell on them, the cries were painful to hear. Truly gut-wrenching. The women were screaming, “God Save me. God Take me.”
They have so little, yet they praise God at every chance they have. This type of unshakeable passion is inspiring and thought provoking. Mostly it is humbling.