Daily Life

 

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.

 

 

To the left, Menagasha with his santa hat, and Yohanes in the background with his big jacket, baseball hat and shovel

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Camp Grow

The final day of summer camp. For campers across the world this means futile promises to stay in touch and tearful goodbyes. For counselors it means a sigh of relief and the promise of sleep. But for Camp Grow, the last day of camp meant so much more.

It would be hard to classify the week-long Bonga summer camp as anything other than magical. There was something special in the air, a palpable feeling that this camp was destined to happen. Everything came together, and the monsoon rains of July avoided us for the entire week.

It started with the kids. From the far reaching corners of Southern Ethiopia, Peace Corps Volunteers and our local counterparts hand-picked the best kids in the world. Some of the kids were incredibly intelligent. Others were very talented. Some of them were very well behaved yet a little shy. These were my favorite to watch. Over the course of a week, they broke loose from their shells and a tangible feeling of hope was visible in their eyes.

The message of camp was simple: Dream big. You are capable of anything.

One of the 26 campers was my famous friend, schooled in a terrorist camp in the capital city. He speaks five languages. One of the campers whose name means “My golden hope” is a 13 year old who does a mean Michael Jackson impersonation. His sister is an equally talented dancer. We had Banchayehu (rough translation: I see things through you) who is the best student at Sheta School. She wants to be an engineer.

‘Zegeye’  proudly claimed he wants to become a philosopher. He taught the kids that Philosophy comes from the Greek words ‘Philo’ and ‘Sophy’ meaning the love of wisdom. There was Kidist, the servant to another campers’ family. Yet, she had the biggest dreams: She wants to be the prime minister one day. There was Muse, a brilliant and polite kid who is learning Turkish. He wants to be a computer hacker and eventually an engineer.

Finally there were two students from the orphanage in Chiri. Geramew was our loveable lion, and Tigist was our quiet beauty.

During the camp, the kids became instant friends, coming together through trust falls and post bedtime whispers. They learned our songs and our games and were thirsty for knowledge. We taught them what we could, including orienteering, composting, HIV prevention, forest preservation, tree planting, Malaria prevention and leadership skills.

At night we brought in role models so the kids could get an idea of what it would take to make their dreams come true. There was my friend, Dr. Milkiyas, as well as Sofi, a female business consultant. We also had four amazing university students who doubled as counselors for the week and a friend who runs an NGO that supports children with HIV.

There were moments that broke my heart. During one activity, the body map, kids traced their bodies and filled their arms, hearts, heads and stomachs with magazine cut-outs that represented their thoughts and passions. Almost every kid put a picture of a family on their heart or head. As they presented their body map they would say, “I love my family” or “I think about my parents a lot.”

Tigist also pasted a magazine photo of an American family posing in a grassy field. She said, “One day, I want to have a family”

A few hours later our other beautiful orphan got me again. The kids would come up to me and ask if they could call their mothers or fathers. Geramew walked sheepishly up to me, the last of the kids.

“Can I call my, um….roommates?”

On the last day, we gave each kid an envelope and scraps of paper. They were told to write notes to their friends, so they could remember each other after camp. My envelope was filled with both amazing and hilarious comments:

  • Your jokes make me happy
  • You are very beauty so continue that
  • If you go to America, please don’t forget me
  • Hero
  • I like your dance.
  • I like Chase and also you.
  • So cool
  • I love you every day

And Finally

  • You were a very good teacher and friend. You are funny and friendly. I hope and I’m sure you get a good job and change the world   – Muse

Yesterday camp ended and the rain came back with a vengeance. Geramew, rather than returning to the orphanage ,is staying with his brother for a week. I wanted to walk him to make sure he arrived safely. His new friends, the dancers Firenesh and Tesfawerk lived on the way. However they refused to go to their home without seeing Geramew safely to his door. So the four of us walked over an hour to a small hut in the pouring rain and said our goodbyes to our good friend. As they hugged, the siblings asked if Geramew would like to join them for dinner at their house. You could even stay with us if you want, they added.

So in a week, children were inspired to become Doctors and Prime Ministers. Tigist found a small family, if only for a week. Geramew found a family for perhaps longer thanks to some new friends, and Muse reminded me of the simple message of camp. Dream big. You are capable of anything.

 

 

Justice

I was not prepared to visit Sheta School. As I walked to the school I remembered the pleas from the community to help rebuild it. It was a priority of theirs, and one we would soon share.

There is a certain shield we wear as Peace Corps Volunteers. As we integrate into our towns and countries, we become immune to hardship.

It is the most rewarding and beautiful  aspects of our service. I never view my town as destitute or its people as poor. I see them as neighbors and friends. Annoying and awesome.  Nevertheless, sometimes we see something that breaks us down. Amidst so much hardship I try to find happiness, but eventually your shield will crack, and it breaks us.

I entered the compound and found Gezehegn, my friend and teacher. He has only one ear, but he has a big smile and a bigger heart. We walk together to a classroom where I am teaching 8th graders an introductory English Lesson.

The classroom is dank and dirty. It is hot and cramped and claustrophobic. Rains from the night before turned the floor into mud. Kids in two-dollar plastic shoes are susceptible to soil-borne diseases. Hookworm and Elephantitis are common. The walls have been washed away, and the sun shines through. This is almost appreciated on days when the power is out.

I teach the kids a basic format for understanding English pronouns and conjugations. The students have a great understanding of English but are far behind in with grammar and pronunciation. We play a game using different tenses of the verb ‘to go.’

I end the lesson by showing them a movie clip. We pause it occasionally to discuss what is happening. The scene is from the movie ‘The Matrix’ which is a big hit with the students. Karate may have surpassed soccer as the national sport here.  In the scene, Morpheus is teaching Neo about expanding his mind to embrace his potential. He says, “I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it.’ So I wrap up class by saying the same phrase. Listen I say, I can’t teach you guys English. However I can give you some tools to learn it on your own. I point to the door. You have to walk through it.

I exit the classroom with the kids and get a brief tour of the school. There are eleven classrooms serving 1,626 students. Ten percent of them are Orphans or are living in extremely vulnerable conditions. Roughly five percent have mothers or fathers with HIV/Aids. Many come from the discriminated Menja tribe. The school has been ignored for too long. More so than the school, the children have been ignored. Then I see a blackboard nailed to a tree. The school is so overcrowded that many lessons are taught here.

So we are taking action. We are rebuilding the school, and it will be a large community effort. 40% of the funds have already been donated by Bonga teachers, parents and the administration. Some great men and women are donating their time and labor. In the end, we will turn all of the classrooms into concrete structures, fortified by brick walls that prevent flooding, rats, and disease. Solar light bulbs will give the class much needed light. One building will be added to move the outdoor classroom back indoors.  We are going to make sure that these children can learn without fear for their health.

When I think of this project a strange paradox exists in my mind. I focus on the sadness too much. This school is in desperate need of help. The children deserve more. As a former volunteer said regarding education in Bonga, helping these students is not about mercy. It is about justice.

I recently visited an inspiring orphanage in Hawassa. The director told me he always highlights the hope rather than the misery. What a great lesson.

So I turn from the sadness to the joy. This project is not about building a school to cure our consciouses because we feel bad. So we should not focus on the misery, even when it is so easy to. Instead, join me in this joyful project where we are giving students a safer and better place to learn. This project is not about sadness but about hope. This project is about giving these children the ability to expand their mind and embrace their potential. We will rebuild the door, and they will walk through it.

So please join me in rebuilding Sheta School. By donating, your dollar will go a long way. You will be donating to a project done at the community level, and without profit. This project is not about throwing money at a problem but solving it with hard work and a little help. It is about showing a community that they have the ability to exact lasting change. We are not only creating a school but a mentality.

If you have the means, one dollar will buy us eight bricks. five dollars will buy us forty. Please donate what you can, and together we can give these children the justice they deserve. 

Here is the link to donate:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=663-023