This is the video I’ve put together highlighting the school rebuild project. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this project a success.
This is the video I’ve put together highlighting the school rebuild project. Thank you to everyone who has helped make this project a success.
The wailing had seemingly stopped when Zena’s brother arrived from Deka.
I had stopped by the funeral with some popcorn for the family and guests. A neighbor told me that the third day of the funeral was appropriate for this kind of action and the snack was greeted with smiles and approval. This is the house of my next door neighbor. They are a great family, an extended family whose relations I don’t quite understand. I buy almost all of my produce from their little store, and we’ve shared meals and coffee several times. This group has the best behaved kids in the area. Fetsum just left for University in Jimma. He is studying pharmacy and was so disappointed he was not chosen for medicine that he has promised to work very hard for the chance to become a Doctor. Then there is Abbiye, the “gobez lij” (smart child) who was one of the brightest kids in his class.
Sadly, I’m at his funeral. He died at the age of 9 from tonsillitis.
The crying is truly brutal, the kind of sound that rocks you to your core. It lasted for three days, with loved ones taking over for crying duty when Zena, the mother, was too tired to cry. Wailers are sometimes even paid to cry on the behalf of the family. Jon and I could hear it from our homes, throughout the day, and lasting well into the night. The first day I went to the funeral she was buried under blankets. Jon looked at me and said, “that’s the saddest room I’ve ever been in.”
On this day, I was outside with several dozen people under the typical green canvas tent. It was quiet until the brother arrived from Deka. He walked down the path slowly, both screaming and crying. Zena greeted him at the doorway and together they called out to “Igzabhiyer” (god). The tone suggesting it was more of a demand ; an answer to the question of why. A few days later, I’m at Bekeles house, a large man with a bushy moustache who seems to have a never ending cold. He is the accountant for the school and I’ve been working with him a lot recently to manage our construction budget. His daughter just died, and she was 22. He is shaking while lying down, but his torso is upright, supported by a few pillows between his back and his house. His right elbow is on his stomach, his head buried in his upheld hand. No one is quite sure of how she died, but it’s believed to be either organ failure or the result of a mishandled abortion.
I excuse myself and head to the school. On the way, I pass Melis, the father of Abbiye. He is solemn, but it is a testament to his character that he is leaving his own funeral to support his neighbor.I get a call from Mesfin, a man I hold in the highest regard, who has helped me the most with the school project. His wife died 5 months ago from Cancer, diagnosed and on dialysis a little too late. When I arrive at the school, I say hello to Tekelu Radjimu, the second name a nickname indicating how tall he is. (roughly 6’8) He has done an amazing job as the labor organizer at the school. His management is terrific, his flexibility needed and his skills are apparent. The school looks beautiful. Unfortunately the tragedy extends to Tekelu, whose daughter died when a tree he was cutting down fell on her. She was seven. This was 2 months ago, yet Tekelu was working within two weeks. I will never forget his dedication or the empty look in his eyes as he sat with his brothers outside of their home. In the span of a few moments, I’ve crossed paths with friends and neighbors all reeling from the deaths of their loved ones.
This has taken me a while to write because of how hard it was for me to witness and to process. But writing is sometimes my therapy and a way I make sense of the things I’ve seen. I wonder what I could have done to prevent these tragedies, and what can be done in the future. I have also thought about these tragedies in the context of Ethiopia and the role of the development community. Recently, I have wrestled a lot with the notion of aide. At the grassroots level, we see how inefficient development work is. Notably I’ve learned that around 70% of development costs are administrative, and that the per diem for some drivers for UNICEF exceeds the salary of some doctors back home. According to one source, The UN per diem for workers in Kampala is 400 dollars per day. Additionally I’ve seen the attitude in which some outsiders perceive Ethiopia, and sadly I can’t claim to be innocent either. It is with pity, and perhaps a self-indulgent desire to help. To be honest, I’m pretty depressed with the state of giving, the entitlement it can create and the inefficient way in which it’s done.
I think about all of these things as I sit at these funerals. However I know that no amount of money is too much when it comes to global health. There is a monumental gap in the healthcare system between the haves and the have-nots. My neighbor just died of tonsillitis, and I don’t mind if money is occasionally wasted in a global effort to make sure that never happens again. `
I’m depressed and saddened but also inspired. Jon, Chuck and I recently teamed up with doctors from Northwestern and an organization called Peace Care. They taught midwives from throughout the region, using mannequins, and hands on lectures to teach over 70 professionals. Topics ranged from how to treat mothers who have postpartum hemorrhage and how to help a newborn baby breathe. They did an amazing job, and they saved countless lives through their sacrifice. One of the doctors, Adianez, stayed for a few weeks in Bonga hospital. A two year old came in weighing less than 4 pounds, severely malnourished and unable to feed or walk. She took a bus to Chiri to get a feeding tube for the boy and saved its life. The other day, my friend Brett and I watched as the baby, now 14 pounds, took milk from its mother.
So we can only hope that development work operates on a learning curve. I know these discussions are happening across the world. I hope that we can continue to improve the system, to know that smaller is sometimes better and to work to see that money intended to help those in need, goes to those in need. In terms of global health, I’ve come to realize how much work is left to be done. I hope we live in a world where we can see this gap, and to understand that no one should have to bury their child, and no one should die of tonsillitis. No two year-old should weigh four pounds. I have so much respect for those people who fight to bridge this disparity, and to the doctors who came here and saved the lives of local children. We need more of this in our world, not less. It’s a beautiful concept, perhaps realized by silence. The silence found when we work together to stop the wailing.
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.
Here is a little video I put together of some of my footage over the past few years. I apologize for the camera quality and resolution, but it offers something that words sometimes can’t quite match. I hope you enjoy!
These are the moments that make Peace Corps worth the bucket baths, the 12 hour bus rides, the loneliness, and the waiting.
In nearby Chiri, a nurse arrived at the scene of a complicated delivery. The midwives, upon seeing the protruding arm of a baby, had tried to pull it out. The result of this tragic attempt was a torn uterus, and an infant who became a statistic.
In two months, doctors from Northwestern University, in collaboration with the Peace Care Organization, will arrive in my town of Bonga, Ethiopia. The doctors are conducting a training that will reduce infant and maternal mortality. Today, I’m asking that you donate what is in your ability, one dollar if possible, to help us succeed in this mission. Equally as important, try reposting this link to social media and help spread the word.
For two weeks, the doctors will train midwives and health officers in the ALSO course, teaching life saving techniques and safe delivery practices. Health professionals will be traveling from all over the region, some up to two days by bus, in order to attend the training. The Peace Care model asks Peace Corps Volunteers to work within the community to identify a problem area. In Senegal, Peace Care is working alongside PCVs to implement cervical cancer prevention services.
Too often in our world, there is a great disparity between the haves and the have-nots. As a volunteer in rural Ethiopia it can be heartbreaking to see a problem and be unable to do anything about it. This is the power of Peace Care. They asked me to find a problem, and then offered to help solve it.
I conducted several focus groups and informant interviews, posing the general question, how can experienced medical professionals help Bonga and the surrounding area of Kafa. The answers were unanimous. There is a lack of obstetrical knowledge among many of the nurses, midwives and health workers. As a result, many children die before they even get a chance to live. Many mothers die without getting to see their children. Across the world, 500,000 mothers die every year in childbirth. 99 percent of them come from areas just like this.
Across Ethiopia, Uterine ruptures leave physical and emotional scars. Fistulas in the Uterus cause urinal leaking. The smell is so bad, that these women are kicked out of the community. They are left to live, or die, in solitude. Sometimes, they are 13 or 14 years old.
Peace Care will end some of these tragic problems. By teaching a program tailored to this environment, we will train dozens of teachers. In turn they will teach hundreds of midwives. The midwives will better understand how to handle an emergency and deliver a baby in an effective manner.
So please, follow this link, donate, and spread the word. Together we can save lives, provide hope to a region, and put a giant dent in a tragic statistic.
To donate please visit:
Or repost the link to your social media followers! Facebook, Twitter, etc.
After an awesome gesture today, I was inspired. It made me think about a quote I saw recently — from Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps.
With certain people there is a certain connection. It can’t be expressed in emotions or words, but there are people I meet who I gravitate towards. I think it can be best explained as a mutual understanding of appreciation. There is a spiritual link that connects us, perhaps by fate, something greater than ourselves, by God perhaps. In my opinion it is less transparent. It is a connection based upon a shared mindset, a collective identity. Veiled through a smile or kind eyes are the traits of empathy and compassion.
Some of these people I have become very close with. Hospital workers like Yidne and Milkiyas. Men like Yohanes and Mesfin. Others I have shared just a few moments with but I feel a closeness to them. They are the people who make this experience so powerful.
They are the people who turn an often lonely and frustrating existence into a joyful one. Here in Ethiopia, we are constantly battling laziness and entitlement; of our fellow peers and of self. These are the people who lift us up. They are young and old. They are my brothers.
There is Abdu, who I have written and talked about admiringly. Abdu is by all accounts a brilliant kid. At 16, he speaks 5 languages and is the default IT expert now that Dave is gone. He is a Muslim. As a young kid he was selected as one of the brightest students by an Al-Qaeda operative and sent to an Addis Ababa school for would be terrorists. He came back to Bonga to find that his worldview did not line up with theirs. As he said, ‘All my friends are Americans and Christians so why would I hate them?’
Then, a few weeks ago, a construction crew was working on a section of road just outside my house. Jon, (who lives two doors down from me) and I went for a walk at night. We returned when it started to rain. We returned to find one of the construction workers sleeping on our front porch with a tiny straw mat. At a salary of around two dollars a day, he couldn’t afford a meal and a bed. Jon and I brought him a mattress, a blanket and some homemade oatmeal with Nutella. Nutella is the universal language of love.
Another such man was Sisay. I’ve written about him before. He attended the Operation Smile mission in Addis Ababa. He is in his mid 30’s and has a cleft palate. His voice is difficult to understand but he has an incredible disposition. We hit it off. Unlike many of the families and patients who felt entitled to more — even in the face of such selfless giving on behalf of Operation Smile – Sisay was appreciative, helpful and kind. Unfortunately he did not receive surgery due to a complication. That did not stop him from being more grateful than any of the other patients.
A month ago there was another mission in the North. He attended and waited patiently for another week, before he was told he could again not receive treatment. He has watched over 200 people receive life changing surgery and he’s been turned away twice.
I called him a few minutes ago, but he is as happy and as pleasant as any Ethiopian I’ve met. He asks me how my girlfriend is, and if I am doing well. He is more concerned with my well-being. His distorted voice, muffled yet sincere, is more beautiful than anyone with a normal palate.
Today someone knocked at my door. It was the construction worker and he was holding a loaf of bread. He thanked me for helping him, and handed me the bread. He asked where my friend was.
“Our volunteers [do not] go overseas as the salesmen of a particular political theory, or economic system, or religious creed. They go to work with people, not to employ them, use them or advise them. They do what the country they go to wants them to do, not what we think is best. They live among the people, sharing their homes, eating their food, talking their language, living under their laws, not in special compounds with special privileges…
…It is only with this compassion that man can look upon man-through the mask of many colors, through the vestments of many religions, through the dust of poverty, or through the disfigurement of disease — and recognize his brother.”
Life is Good.
Perhaps because I love to plan for the future, and daydream about a future life in India or Panama, I suck at living in the present. But thanks to some great people and a sense of community I’ve been able to really immerse myself in Ethiopia.
Part of that can be blamed on Ben Hawkins, my great friend and former roommate who first forced me to think of a life outside of college parties and internship opportunities. He’s been here with me for the last two weeks, and we’ve had an amazing time making jokes and having epic conversations that make us sound like crazy people.
I feel whole here.
Earlier I wrote that America was pure happiness. To me there is a difference between happiness and joy. There are times in my life when I’ve been very happy. In fact, there have been few times when I wasn’t very happy. What I experience here in Ethiopia is joy.
Right now, I’m sitting on my front porch. It’s 5:54 PM which means the light from the sun has turned the street into a golden paradise. People walk by that I know. Meheret from the High School, who spent weeks practicing English verb conjugations. Then I see Salamwit, the cutest girl in all of Bonga. I visited her at the hospital when she had pneumonia. She was a former Kindergarten student who won the heart of Milkiyas, my doctor friend who cared for her. When she sees me, her smile explodes. MICHAEL! DEHNA NEH??? HOW IS KARR-LEEE?!!
This feeling is a shade deeper than happiness. What I have experienced here is periods of loneliness and frustration punctuated with explosions of joy, and the frustration is giving way. Ben and I are living an awesome life. We spend every night with my host family, Yohanes and Alemua and their friends and family. When I look back on my time in Peace Corps, these are the times I will remember. Dinner lasts several hours, and the best way to describe these moments is that they are genuine and real. I make jokes and dance and Alemua forces amazing Ethiopian food on us until we can’t eat another bite. We call these dinners, “Guramyle” meaning a mixture of cultures. I often make a curry or pasta or hummus, and she prepares national dishes. Culture continues to collde as Ben plays the guitar while I (unfortunately) sing. It doesn’t matter that I have the natural rhythm of a newborn goat, they love it anyways.
During the day, we walk around town, stopping by the kindergartens to play them music, or we hike to the waterfall or the palm tree forest where we play catch. He’s come with me to a few planning meetings at the school and hospital, but most of our time is spent soaking in the realness of Bonga.
We spend all day making fun of each other, but we end up gravitating towards larger thoughts and the meaning of life. One thing we talked about these past two weeks was how content we were with our life, and how little synchronicities were linking thoughts and ideas together.
This ‘Synergy’ as we called it, was a term that found its way into my life from Carly. Her sense of wonder and spirituality always lead to her teaching me about things. She started thinking about it one day when a (potentially) crazy guy at a farmers market told her that feelings of déjà vu and coincidences are God’s way of telling us that we are on the right path. He later went on to tell her that she is possibly one of Jesus’ direct descendants.
But his message is one that I have adopted. Whenever things connect in a way that can’t be explained by simple coincidence, I like to think that I’m on the right path. And the synergies were present the past few weeks. Everything was connected.
One day we were talking about Kim chi, the Korean fermented cabbage dish. A few minutes later, Alemua knocks on my door with a giant head of cabbage. “You love cabbage! So I got this for you” she says. That night at Guramyle dinner, Alemua’s television, always tuned to Ethiopian TV, finds its way to some hour long special on how to prepare Kim chi.
The next day, I ask Ben about Kombucha, a symbiotic yeast bacteria that I was introduced to in America. (By Carly of course) We talk about how we all love it. That night at dinner, my friend Chuck asks if I would be interested in a starter kit to brew my own Kombucha. Yes I would.
So a quick summary: I’m turning into a crazy liberal, and I think simple coincidences are a message from God. Glad you’re still with me.
Later Ben and I get in an awesome debate centered on the book, “The Giving Tree.” We disagree on everything before finding out that we reached the same exact conclusion. Classic Ben and Mike.
We talk about what the purpose is in caring for the environment. There is little we can do to reverse the trends of destruction, because to do so, you must change the way people think. So truly what is the point? Eventually, by rapture, Armageddon, war, or the sun exploding, all of us will be gone, animals and all.
So why care about Selamwit, her dirty school, or the White Rhinoceros? Our conclusion is that the alternative is just too frightening. We care because it gives us hope, even if it is false. Empathy over Apathy. Our time on Earth will end, so why not spend that time in the glorious pursuit of the right path. I have been given so much, so I want to continue to learn and grow, become a better person, and share. Share what I’ve been given with those in need.
Later that night we are talking to Brian, the coolest Peace Corps Volunteer on the phone.
I ask him if he likes Kombucha. Are you kidding me? I love it. He goes on:
“The cool thing about Kombucha is it gets better over time. You can experiment and find the right recipe. It keeps growing, and eventually it gets so big that you are forced to share it with someone else.”