More Joy

I recently wrote about a rough month I had. I said, “I hope…that the next month will bring more joy.”

It came in the form of a 25 cent exercise book, literally 50 pages folded in half and stapled by hand. It is about the size of a readers digest, and the recycled paper is unforgiving to pens. They bleed right through the page, making for difficult note taking.

The cover of this Chinese-made book reads ‘fresh fruits are those that are healthful’ and features a basket of inedible plastic fruit. Yeah, that’s her English notebook.

The carriers name is Mekdes. She is in the tenth grade, and is one of the regulars of my voluntary English class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Some days, 70 kids show up and cram into my tiny classroom. On hot afternoons, perhaps 10 will show up.

My classroom changes depending on the day. There are never enough chairs so kids stand or sit on tables. I’m still working on getting the chalk not to screech. My classroom has a lot of natural light. It is more of a shed, with broken windows and dust everywhere. Some days I have to teach outside.

But Mekdes is always there, quietly taking notes.

It’s interesting because my first impression of her was that she was trouble. She was forced to come to my first lesson by one of her teachers, I thought as a punishment. I later learned it was because of her potential.

She has a mischievous look about her. A look that screams, I’m going to make this class annoying for you Mr. Foreigner. She giggled with her friends and seemed rather unimpressed by my first lesson.

Slowly I realized my first impression was entirely wrong. She is very polite, and very smart.

In my first few lesson plans, I’ve tried to reach the kids on a personal level. I tell them I am here to help. They can find me and ask me any questions they have about English. However, I say, I am only here for one more year. Therefore, I can give them hope and the tools to become better students. I tell them I will teach them to be better communicators, understand grammar, and to speak with confidence. This is dependent on their effort.

We also try and have lots of fun. The kids are not use to interactive learning. Allowing them to relax and enjoy my lessons has been difficult. They have been programmed to be rigid.

And therein lies the Ethiopian difficulty with learning English. Most students have a good understanding of grammar and language rules. They recite definitions verbatim but have missed out on the practical sense of learning. They might be able to give the definition of a verb, but they couldn’t pick one out of a sentence.

I start each lesson with the same tools I’ve used to learn Amharic. I tell them how everyday I try and learn three words and one verb. I then conjugate that verb for each pronoun in different tenses.

For example:

I go. You Go. He Goes. We Go. They Go

I am going. You are going, Etc. etc.

Then we practice some sentences out loud — Pronunciation is another key problem with students here. I challenge them to use the words we learned earlier in the sentences.

I say that if they do this kind of thing on their own, every day, they will become terrific speakers in English. Even when I’m gone they can try this work at their homes. It falls on deaf, bored, hot, tired ears, preoccupied with thoughts of high school crushes, thoughts of lunch an hour delayed by the goofy American teacher.

Besides, they want to get to the good part: the games, the films, the dramas.

Often times, during my lessons, the children stare at me blankly. They are overwhelmed. I have to plead with them to write down this material, to try and take something home to study. Very few take great notes. So before long, we play a game. I have a small arsenal of activities that get the kids moving, talking, learning. At the end of class, I’ll show a clip from a movie and ask them questions about it. What would you do in that situation. At 1:30 they are free to run to their soccer games, gossip circles, and any other extracurricular that they are in the process of taking for granted.

I’m happy though.  It feels wonderful to feel useful again. I’m doing a lot more work in Bonga, but teaching has a special place in my heart. I love being able to see progress, to inspire the kids. Then again, the progress has been slow. Am I helping these kids? Do they understand the difference between the past perfect and the past perfect progressive? Are they becoming better students?

Mekdes comes up to me after class. She has waited for everyone to leave

“Can you correct this?” she asks timidly, showing me the exercise book. Page after page after page is full.

Every day she has been trying to learn new words. Impudent, nevertheless, brain-child.

Brain-child makes me laugh.

She writes the definition: a person who is the first at being smart.

Every day she learns a verb and practices conjugating it. Her notebook is filled with verbs in every tense, from the past perfect progressive to the present.

I am planning. I had been planning.

My jaw drops. She’s been doing it everyday since my first lesson.

I’m so happy to know that if I leave Ethiopia tomorrow, I may have helped one girl. Perhaps she does well on her 12th grade tests and can go to a good university. By studying hard, she is giving herself that opportunity.

We walk outside together, and I correct some of her very few mistakes. She writes them down correctly. She tells me she really likes class. She is now free for the day, and we depart in different directions. Before she gets too far I call back to her,

“Hey Mekdes. You are my brain child.”

She smiles and catches up with her friends.

Heartbreak

I apologize for my absence. My writing comes in waves. I feed on inspiration, and this past month has been my hardest yet. Nevertheless I think it is important to share my experiences and my observations. Generally, it is my nature to reflect on the positives and ignore the harder aspects of Peace Corps. This has also gotten me into trouble: I believe I have been the target of some anger on behalf of some of our newer volunteers. By exaggerating the good and ignoring the hardships, I might have misrepresented life here. Oops.

But that is over. I’m in a funk.  I have been hardened, broken.

It’s been a rough month. So many things have happened that have removed the cloud of blissful ignorance I created.

I floated around Bonga, ignoring the immense poverty around me. Going home and returning helped remind me of this. Increased inflation (40% annually) has lead to a desperation in the air. People are more aggressive. People are hungry.

Harassment is unavoidable in Peace Corps. It is a staple of our existence. Often it takes the form of begging. All day. Every day. We hate being sought after by panhandlers and children. You become desensitized to the children who come up to you with puppy dog eyes. They bring their hand to their mouth, imitating the act of eating. Then they show you one finger. Just one dollar. Just one.

What does it mean that this really annoys me? Sometimes, it makes me angry. I try not to make eye contact and want them to just leave me alone. I assume they just want money for candy and this helps me justify my lack of empathy.

But, the other day I was walking home from our local high school. A kid about my age caught up with me. I could tell he was a good kid. He asked me for money but it was different. He was my age, educated. He seemed to be embarrassed about asking me for money. I realized that he was hungry. He needed money for food.

I had a sales job before I came here. It was soul sucking and miserable. I could have been a good salesman, but my heart wasn’t in it. Asking people for money for something they don’t’ want – knowing that they hate you for asking. My ego couldn’t handle it. I didn’t last a month. But he was sacrificing his ego for dinner. It really hurt me to hear him. He didn’t want to ask but kept insisting.

Please, please just give me some food or bread. I can’t I thought. If I give it to him, the whole town will expect me to do the same for them tomorrow. At least, that’s what I think. I gave him an orange and a half loaf of bread. Was it to clear my conscience? Was it his tone that made me feel for him? Why did he get something when others haven’t? I’m not sure, but I believe it was his disposition. Or perhaps his desperation. Nevertheless, those kinds of moments are tough to shake.

I had another day at Chiri Hospital, following a hike through the forest. I toured the Malnutrition ward with two of the doctors, Jackie and Kari. On the way to the room, we pass the emergency room. Three kids suffering from tuberculosis are to my immediate right. One of them will definitely make it. The other two look very sick, unable to move, they are staring up at the ceiling. The mothers give me that same look – maybe he can help? Look at my baby! Help us.

The middle beds are empty. The third and last row has two individuals. One is suffering from an unknown ailment. He is sleeping. The other has a huge bandage on his head. Machete fight. He was almost scalped and will be lucky to survive the day.

We pass into a small room. Like the other room, it smells like a combination of sweat, hair, and diapers. It’s hot in this small room. Too much anxiety has coated these walls.

There are two children with their families. Both with stories that would turn a statue of a man into a 12 year old girl at a Justin Beiber funeral.

One child’s story is a success story. He came into the clinic two weeks ago. At age two, he weighed 12 pounds. Apparently he couldn’t move his arms or his legs, the result of severe malnutrition. His mother was dead I believe, and he was being cared for by his father and cousin.

But this baby had recovered. He also had more personality than every other child I’ve seen combined. His smile was bigger than his eyes, a hell of an accomplishment. He loved the camera, and attention. He loved boobs. He loved smiling. Yeah, he was a kid after my own heart. His head dwarfed the rest of his body. His legs stood out like withering branches on an old tree, like the scarecrow in Wizard of Oz. A stiff wind could knock him over. His knees were wrinkled and could not support the rest of his body. But he was going to survive.

daniel, the recovering two year old

 

Next to him sat a newly admitted child. His face was swollen, his eyes swollen shut. This was the result of extreme malnutrition. He was in the right place, but he was in dire condition. I really hope he survives.

 

All the while I’ve been preoccupied with planning a safari and gaining weight to look better. When all around me kids are starving, hungry, and dying.

Then came the robbery. A kid on my compound is mentally disabled. His name is Geramo and he is a wonderful kid with a lot of spirit. I really have a soft spot for him. He always runs up to me and hugs me when I’ve been gone for more than a day. He never allows me to do any work and insists on washing my clothes/laundry if he sees me doing them.

So it broke my heart when he and some local kids broke into my house and stole some money. I’ve given so much love to them and they still think of me as Mr. White Money Bags.

It turns out the parents of the kids put them up to it. Manipulate the child, steal from the wealthy folks on the compound. It has happened more than once, we’ve found out.

And here’s the real crusher. As of a week ago, the kids were headed to prison for a few weeks, the disabled kid I love was sentenced to a year in prison, and the parents were free as their was no evidence they were the masterminds. This was the complete opposite of justice.

So for a while, I walked around with my head down.

Fortunately, the other day, after pleading with the police, the charges were all dropped and everyone was freed. My friend Geramo is now with his mother.

It was a very tough month. Anyone who is joining Peace Corps should expect to have these moments: when nothing works, everyone sucks, the culture seems backwards and the poverty and desperation eats you inside.  There is no happy ending here, just the hope that I can still make a difference and that the next month will bring more joy.

A Bridge to Nowhere

This entry has taken me a while to write. I wanted it to say everything I felt. But those feelings were hard to put into words. I started to write this once, but gave up. I rewrote it in my head. But, as is always the case, sitting down to write is the hardest step. Sitting down to write is so much harder than actually writing.

I recently returned from America. I spent two weeks with family, friends and my girlfriend. Ironically I went on two camping trips. You know, because camping was high on my priority list. My life is camping.

I had an amazing time. My house looked and felt amazing. It’s been entirely renovated but the atmosphere is still there. Home is blind I think – and my home is a feeling. But America felt different. When I first arrived in Ethiopia I did not have any culture shock. I was expecting poverty, and it lived up to its billing. I loved the authenticity of Ethiopia – a stark contrast from America.

Culture shock happened for me in reverse. In the airport, I couldn’t believe all of the commotion –The size of everything. America is so

Shiny.

Seriously, it’s like a big light bulb with huge buildings and everyone is running around. Where are they all going? Seriously where is everyone going? Also why aren’t people staring and pointing at me. Don’t they know I’m a big deal?

I remember marveling at the excess. I remember staring at a sidewalk and wondering, could I dig up this concrete? I could bring it back and use it to make a wonderful house for someone. It is in these ideas that I realize how much coming here has changed me.

Here are some other thoughts:

People are addicted to their smart phones. It’s been interesting to see the transformation over the past year. It’s almost as if life was impossible before we had computers in our hands. I’m likely to fall into that trap when I return home, but I hope that I can remember that the best things in life can’t be found on an iPhone.

I had a party before I left for family and friends. My sister was back from Haiti, my other sister up from college, and my brother had just moved home from France. It was great to be together again.

Fast-forward 12 hours and I was a little intoxicated. And by little I mean a lot.

The party was over and I started to sweep up the kitchen. It was probably around midnight. I grabbed the broom behind the refrigerator. Immediately it felt weird. Was it wood or plastic? I couldn’t tell. Why was it so straight? It seemed fake. I thought about my broom here in Bonga. It is so pathetic that it is almost endearing. It is bent and crooked and weak. A stick with horse hair attached to it. Sweeping is a workout, where I have to push the dirt out my back door.

But this American broom was comically powerful. I moved it a centimeter and dust went flying into another corner. So efficient. So fake. And that is America and Ethiopia through a lens. One is straight, methodical, excessive and powerful. The latter bent and crooked, yet natural.

I think I drank too much.

I really can’t help but be amazed at the efficiency of life in America. Things work there. The next time someone complains about our government, I’m sending them on a 14 hour bus ride here in Ethiopia. Paved roads, hospitals, hand santizer, and bridges. We are very lucky.

Bridges. That is another thing I’ve noticed in my travels.

In America, bridges are functional. They take people from point A to point B with pinpoint accuracy. They are cost effective, and therefore ugly. They are concrete slabs of boring architectural perfection. In Europe, bridges are works of art. In Florence and in the Swiss Alps, bridges were built to please the eye. Much like the towns and houses, they accentuate the land. You want to take pictures of them.

But in Ethiopia, bridges help me find my religion. When I pass over them, I pray. Please God, let me make it over this thing. The bridge that connects Bonga to Chiri, made from about 10 different materials, has holes in it that a goat could fall through. In fact, a goat has fallen through.

My whole time in America was spent racing around. It wasn’t necessary but I succumbed to the lifestyle.. I think I was feeding off of the American vibes. Got to see this. Have to do that. Work at 8, meeting at 10, Doctor at 11, lunch at 12. You know what I did today before lunch?

Nothing.

And it was awesome. I thought about writing this but put it off. I walked into town but didn’t buy anything. My bread store was closed. I could have walked 30 minutes to the other bread store, but I was too tired after my long and eventful morning. I hung out in my hammock and started to read a book that I couldn’t get into. And that brings me up to now.

America and Ethiopia are two different worlds. Everything America is, Ethiopia is not. Everything Ethiopia has, America lacks. Ethiopia has time. Time for family and time for self. Time to stop and breathe. But America has Sushi and checkout lines.

I was so excited for a hot shower and my favorite foods. My Mom’s roast lamb with carrot and mango soup, Panang curry, Chipotle, and summer barbecue. There is nothing more nostalgic than the smell of a barbecue in the summer.

And I had all of these things that I craved. Yet they were not worthy of my excitement. As much as I missed Crisp and Juicy, I missed the people I’ve shared it with more. On my last night in America, A bounty of Peruvian A la brasa goodness in front of me, I could not eat one bite. I was leaving my friends and family. I was leaving Carly.

I’ve given up a lot to come here: Modern conveniences, running water, money, Asian food. But my biggest sacrifice was leaving my best friend. It makes Peace Corps so much harder. There is a freedom in knowing I’ve found someone that I could miss that much. I like her more than anything else and I miss the world we create together.

As a result, I tend to live in the future. As my landlady says,

“Miki Rasih Tafa?! Ka carly gar new! Izoh, timatalech” – Mike your head is lost? Is it with Carly? Stay strong – she will come!”

I can’t wait until December when she comes back. We’re going on a safari and to Zanzibar. I live in those moments. I dream of being back in America and starting my life. What will I do? I wonder what I’ll do.

I can’t do that anymore. I have to start living in the present. One day, I will look back on the time I lived in rural Africa. I will remember walking over a fallen tree across the river to the basketball court. And teaching English in a dirt room, or explaining accounting to honey farmers. I hope I don’t remember wishing I were somewhere else.

For now my journey includes unpaved roads and rudimentary bridges. Broken down buses, muddy paths and life changing epiphanies. But the journey trumps the destination. And while my destination is exciting, I can’t arrive there quite yet. I have to cross the bridge first.