Christianity vs. Islam: The story of Abdu

Abdu was 6 years old when his father died. His mother struggled to make ends meet, supporting her kids with the help of her extended family, the mosque and what little she could earn washing laundry in the community. Abdu did his part, taking care of his younger brother and sister. Basic necessities like water, clothing, and food were difficult to secure, especially for a single mother raising three small children. As a result, the prospects for Abdu were slim, as most children in such an environment must quickly find a way to secure an income through manual labor to help the family. This is a tragic outcome for a kid who was blessed with a rare gift.

Abdu is a genius. 

I look around at the headlines of the day. It’s frightening to see the world falling apart over the subtle differences between two very similar religions. The tragedy in Norway is just the most recent example. A massacre of innocent people and children at the hands of one twisted mans hallucinated visions of a world where Islam and Christianity coexist. Over 6 dozen murdered because of the fear of the spread of Islam.

Abdu was eight years old when Al Qaeda operatives arrived in Bonga. It was 2003. They were on a mission to spread their idealogy to Ethiopia. The objective was simple, they wanted to recruit and train budding jihadists. An Islamic school had been founded in Addis Ababa, a secret training ground for future terrorists.. From smaller towns they selected the brightest students, and offered their families something they could not– A great education, food, money and shelter. Abdu was the only boy selected from Bonga. He was chosen as one of the smartest young Muslims in Ethiopia following a test administered to many locals. 

The news today is inundated with harrowing headlines. 

“14 dead in car-bombing in Pakistan. Taliban suspected.” This daily recurrence washes over my mind as I scroll down. I can’t help but be reminded of Joseph Stalin’s infamous quote. “One death is a tragedy. One Million is a statistic.” these deaths have lost their personal touch to tragedy, becoming a small part of a larger narrative. They are just numbers now.

Then this from a few months ago: “twelve dead in riots in Northern Afghanistan.” The victims were innocent Nepalese and European guards of the United Nations Building. The riots were in response to Terry Jones, the pastor from Florida who threatened and then followed through with his promise to burn the Qu’ran. It’s frightening what globalized media  has done to our global community. The most vile and ignorant of my fellow Caucasians have become the easy propoganda archetypes for radical islamist groups. Terry Jones and Anders Behring Breivik are the West. While Osama Bin Laden is the most identifiable muslim. 

These were the kind of people Abdu learned about as he grew up. For six years he lived, studied and trained as a student in an Al-Qaeda training school. In the meantime, he mastered English, and two dialects of Arabic on top of the three languages he already knew. He studied computers and electronics. His education was top notch. However everything was taught within the parameters of radical Islam. America is the enemy. Christianity is the enemy.

Our continued presence in the Arab world, while representative of a moral assymetry, only provides ammunition for terrorist groups. Are there more terrorists before or after our invasion of Iraq? Over one million Iraqi’s have died since our invasion. Those deaths created more terrorists than they killed. How many young men have lost brothers, uncles, mothers and sisters? How many of them can blame the US for those losses? Right now, students are learning about ­­­­­Terry Jones and Anders Behring Breivik in schools just like the one in Addis. Ammunition added to a growing list of grievances. The recruitment of terrorists is getting easier. Mutual fear and hatred is growing.Our enemies extend to our own subconscious. Islam and Christianity should be forces of good rather than evil. Both religions were revolutionary in their ideals, with beliefs that shattered the cultural norms that preceded them. In fact, the Qu’ran and the Bible both hold great respect for women. It is only in practice that these morals were corrupted by men.

Three years ago, US Special Forces discovered the training school in Addis Ababa. It was raided, and shut down. Abdu, after spending eight years being brainwashed into a life of targeted hate, was free. Abdu returned to Bonga where he faced a dilemma no 13 year old should have to understand. Were his Christian friends his enemies? Was what he learned the foundation for his future?

The trajectory of this chasm is alarming. Christianity vs. Islam. The massacre in Norway, 911, the USS Cole, riots in Afghanistan, Pastor Terry Jones. Eventually we know where this leads, as history has been witness to this struggle. We saw it in Western Europe: Catholicism vs. Protestantism in Ireland. A prolonged disagreement, forged over the smallest of differences, where each act of revenge preceded and followed another one until the question of how it started becomes obsolete. Each side claiming to be a victim, while they each act as the culprit. This is the arc of our most recent conflict, only on a much larger scale. Unfortunately this is the world we inherited. We now have ownership of our inheritance. What do we do?

We can look to the past again for some guidance. Robert Kennedy, referring to the civil rights movement once said the following worlds, which were retold by his brother Teddy during Robert’s funeral. The relevance in these words today is eerily evident:

“Our future may lie beyond our vision but it is not entirely beyond our control…Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation”

He continued, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, And crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that could sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

I have become friends with Abdu in my year in Bonga. He is the local IT expert. He teaches his English teachers English. He is the smartest person in Southern Ethiopia and he is only 16. 

Abdu also told me that everything he was taught was a lie. How could Christians be the enemy? His best friends were Christian. He loves America. He is grateful for the education he received but summarizes his time there like this,

“I learned hate for six years. But I look around and all I feel is love.”

A tiny ripple of hope.

The Real Peace Corps

I feel as though I have done somewhat of a disservice throughout this blog, painting a picture that is not precisely accurate. I am an emotional person, romantic, optimistic to a fault. I like extremes and superlatives, exaggerating in an attempt to draw my audience in, and to make sense of things that I can’t make sense of.

I romanticize this experience as a function of my personality but also as a coping mechanism. Simply put, life in the Peace Corps is hard.

I want to write about the real Ethiopia, and the real Peace Corps experience. It is a defensive approach, protection for when a future volunteer reads about my experiences. Hopefully as a result, he or she will understand what to expect, and will not mock me for only showing pictures of sunsets and kids holding hands.

So what should you expect?

Nothing is the best answer. Expect nothing and you will be pleasantly surprised because every experience is different. My friend Jon lives 80 miles away. His house has no floor save for the mud it was built on, and he may go weeks without any source of electricity.  My site mate Dave lives 200 meters from my house and our experiences are similar only in the cultural and physical climate that we share. Peace Corps volunteers live in rural places, in cities, on the beach and in the mountains. We live in peaceful towns and difficult towns besieged by alcoholism. Some live in nice houses with bad toilets and others in bad houses with nice toilets. Our homes, failures, successes and environments differ, and yet a few common themes unite us. We are lonely yet connected as a fraternity of like minded people. We are frustrated and enthralled. We are celebrated and studied and gossiped about. We are discouraged and resilient and everywhere in between.

Peace Corps is defined by a strange dichotomy. Freedom and containment. I wake up every day with a blank slate. I can do anything. I can do nothing. And while the possibilities are only limited by my own imagination, the ability to do as I please is corrupted by a number of social, political, and cultural practices.

Case in point: Most volunteers assume they will run to let off steam in their new country. However, running here is a cause of stress more so than a release. You are stared at as a foreigner here, stares that know no shame. Stares that you can not only see, but also feel. They are honest and curious stares, but can crack even the kindest of spirits. A foreigner in shorts – Running? That is, to their credit, quite hilarious.  Running here means being followed by hordes of children, the last thing you need when trying to let off steam.

I want to export coffee to benefit local farmers and provide an organic alternative to the Starbucks mess we have back home. The bureaucratic structure and corruption here has destroyed those dreams. Disappointment — and the inability to enact change in your community is part of the PC experience.

Doing something like the Peace Corps will be your lowest of lows and your highest of highs. Highs that shatter your previous world views.  You will feel refreshed, walk in a forest and quote Thoreau. The lows can last so long that you need a fleeting moment of existentialism just to make it through the rainy season. That, and a ton of books. You will consider going home. You will count down the days until you leave. You will count up from the day you arrived.

“I can’t believe we have been here for a year!”

“I can’t believe we’ll be here another year!”

You will understand yourself, question yourself and compare where you came from to where you are. I have days when I miss America. I have days when I loathe it. Why do people care about Charlie Sheen? How many kids in the horn of Africa died of hunger yesterday and does anyone care? I can’t even imagine dying of hunger. When I’m hungry, I eat.

But I eat strange food. Ethiopian food is unlike anything else in the world, and I have come to absolutely love it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be in a country with such diverse and delicious food. However at times the food is quite mediocre and will often lead to three days of stomach cramps. Other times, the food is so incredibly bad that I consider burning down every plant that grows whatever the hell is in ‘Gunfo’

Don’t try Gunfo.

Universally, Peace Corps volunteers crave food. I have dreams about it, vivid dreams where I belly flop into a bowl of ice cream off of a hot-fudge brownie diving board. I have a long distance relationship with Sushi and we are not communicating well. We miss the diversity and develop a strange passion for nostalgic food.

As volunteers, we love to complain. We joke about our poop and our pooping locations. We laugh about smelling bad.

We smell bad.

We yearn for hot showers, however I think it is just for show. Any volunteer, more so than food or showers, miss people and places. You will miss friends and seasons. During your service, you will be alone on the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving. You will miss your family, your really hot girlfriend, and the contextual clues you associate with fond memories. I know what the Chesapeake bay feels like on thanksgiving. I can feel the football, and taste the sweet potato pie.

You will be stared at 24/7 365. I understand what it’s like to be a good-looking girl at a fraternity party. Stay strong ladies. I also have so much respect and admiration for the women across Peace Corps, who tolerate a level of staring and harassment, that I can barely fathom.

One of the great things about Peace Corps is you have a massive amount of time to become a better person. The best advice I can give is to try and do something everyday to improve upon yourself. For some people this is writing or reading. For others it is teaching English or working out. Learn an instrument or paint — do whatever works for you, but know this: You will stare at the wall. I stare at the wall a lot. I’ve had every thought someone can have. Probably twice.

You will develop an eerie sense of calm. I’ve spent 75 hours in the last two weeks on a bus. The DMV will be a breeze now. I’ve found new and embarrassing ways to entertain myself. I could watch paint dry and be perfectly happy.

Transportation completely sucks.

I just got out of a bus with 12 seats on it. There were 25 people on it. There were two chickens and probably 20 kilograms of rancid butter. Here is a letter:

Dear Ethiopia,

It’s ok to open the windows on the bus. I promise you won’t die from the wind. I promise it’s not that cold. Currently, sweat is running down my lower back and into the danger zone. My sweat is sweating. Fresh air is nothing to be scared of but tuberculosis is. As much as I like saunas and the smell of chicken feces, can we please crack the window’s for 2 minutes? I will love you forever.

Yours truly,

Michael

There is no average day.

Last week, my Tuesday was perfect. I had a meeting with the tourism office about making them a website. I taught a man how to make guacemole and tortillas which he will sell in his store. I played basketball, added a layer to a clay oven and worked on the newsletter I am writing for Peace Corps.

The next day? I slept in, watched a silly amount of the show ‘Dexter’  and checked in on my fantasy baseball team. Yeah, I’m cool.

There will be times when, despite your pictures of you hugging little kids, you just want to tackle one of them and scream, my name is NOT,

“you you you!!!!!, give me money!!!!!!”

In America we ask for the time. Here, we ask for the month. It’s the most obvious difference. The pace of life here is slow, methodical, cyclical. Everything takes a long time. If you aren’t a patient person you will become one.

Life here is completely different. It is another world, lost in space and time. It is hard, and the little annoyances can manifest themselves into a black cloud. They certainly will, but it is important to make note of the small victories and the little moments. When I open my eyes I am reminded of why I am here. Just when I think a kid is running up to me to ask me for money, she tells me that she loves me and blows a kiss. Then I remember that I am on a bus and I start crying. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a busted engine. It is getting dark, I have a chicken in my lap and personal space at this point is a distant memory. People are yelling into their cell phones, begging me to speak to them and take them to America. The only food in the town by the road is Gunfo.

Remember in times like this to take a deep breath. Peace Corps really is a roller coaster. An exhilarating and scary ride that completely sucks and totally kicks ass.

And when you are feeling down, just remember to go outside and let Africa save you.

 

 

 

Short Stories: The Great White Hope

I believe that years from now, when I look back on this experience, this time will be consolidated into a few short moments. Years condensed into a blur punctuated by a couple profound memories.

It will be like looking back on camping as a kid. Growing up my best friend and I hated boy-scout camps. We always went, always complained, and then always returned. For some reason we only took away the best memories, leaving the others In the further recesses of our memory.

You remember the difficulty – the rain and the lack of comfort and amenities. Yet for some reason, you always look back with some fondness and set off on new adventures.

Peace Corps is similar in that regard. It’s a unique perspective looking to the future to understand what I will take away from the present. I am sure however, that an event last week will stay with me forever. This was not a good memory, but one that summarizes how life here changes your perspectives on what is important.

I was at Chiri Hospital, my oasis near Bonga. Here, Dave and I were hanging with the American doctors from an NGO called Lalimba. I heard about a baby who was believed to have meningitis. She had been on oxygen for three days with no sign of recovery. The family was deciding whether or not to take the child home to die in peace. That day there was a glimmer of hope. The little girls arms and fingers had been locked in a temporary paralysis. A defense mechanism resembling that of a centipede’s curl.  Twisted and cramped in a desperate search for security. That day, her arms had begun to relax and she was breathing easier.

Reluctantly, the doctors took her off the oxygen hoping she was recovering. Gasping for air, she was placed back on oxygen. Shortly after this setback, I went to see the baby and family. And this was the moment I will remember. It was the mother, looking at me as If I was this last great hope. Her eyes told me everything. “Maybe, this white doctor knows what to do!” She showed me the babies arms, and stomach. Pointed and said several things in her local tongue. She looked to me for an answer. I didn’t have one. I immediately regretted being there.

The next day, the family decided it was time. The baby, off of oxygen, died before she left the gates.

I haven’t quite figured out what it all means. Perhaps no conclusion can be found in this memory. It was haunting: the baby’s mom with her desperate eyes. I certainly know I could never be a doctor. And I know that sometimes things don’t make sense. You can’t romanticize everything, and in a world like this, there are no answers for the hardest questions.