Meet Mr. Bean

 

How Do I accurately describe my host father? He is calm, gentle and loving. I used to think of him as an all knowing, perfect reincarnation of Buddha (Until he said some mildly offensive things about Judaism). Regardless, he has a big heart. When he speaks in Amharic, it is always quiet and solemn. He looks up to God and thanks him. He compliments everyone he knows and he hates to say anything bad about anything. However, a different side of him comes out when he speaks English. He goes from being a quiet observer to a loud exclaimer. His accent is a hilarious mixture of a loud German and Gandhi.

He is Mr. Bean and I love him.

  • When I’m playing with the dogs on our compound: 

    Michael there is place for MAN. And there is place for  (pause) DOG!

  • When he hears I did something at the kindergarten or with kids: 

    Michael! You are GENTLE man!

  • Everyday when we drink coffee: 

    COFFEE! It is GOOD

  • When Jon goes on a bike ride or makes food: 

    Jon! He is (pause) FREE MAN.

  • When we were building a clay oven (with Ben Hawkins) and He and I disagreed on the structure: 

    MICHAEL you are LAZY and NOT RIGHT. Ben is (pause) SMART man.

  • If I’m doing anything remotely considered work on a weekend:

    MICHAEL! Take REHST. Work is not good TODAY.

  • Again, working on a Sunday: 

    Today it is REHST DAY. WORK it is for MAHN – DAY!

  • If I’m on my front porch, shoeless: 

    Barefoot is NOT GOOD. FOR HELZ (health)

  • If I say something new in Amharic: 

    MICHAEL! You are FINISHED AT Amharic LANGUAGE

  • On his way out of the compound: 

    I go to FOREST AREA. There is (pause) WORK today in my forest area!

  • When jon says a joke: 

    JON. He is FUNNY MAN! He is FREE MAN!

  •  Every other day: 

    How is KAR-LEE. She is very SMART woman.

  • When we are discussing politics or the simple fact that Alemua hates being here and prefers the capital city: 

    NO NO. THIS IS NOT RIGHT. (waving finger) SHE IS LIAR WOMAN.

  • Shortly thereafter: 

    KAFFA. It is best country It is GREEN COUNTRY!!!!

  • When it’s been raining for several days: 

    RAIN. It is Best. Mud, it makes me HAPPY!!!!

  • When we are at dinner, talking about the school work and how Mesfin has helped me so much: 

    Mesfin. He is STRONG man. He is best MAN!

  •  At the Dinner Table: 

    This is fresh food. It is ORGANIC!

  • When I tell him I don’t want to eat meat or that I don’t really like it:  

    Michael! WHAT IS ZIS?! FRESH MEAT. Why Not EAT. Freash meat it is GOOD!

Things I will miss about Ethiopia

I’m leaving in a few months. I’m trying to come to terms with this, not worry too much about my future, and live in the present even though the future is exciting. The school project is coming along really well, reducing my stress incredibly. My thoughts have shifted to trying to not take this time for granted. Here is a list of things I will certainly miss about my adopted country:

 

1. How an Ethiopian can find a deep connection with someone over lunch or a bus ride. Ethiopians don’t put up social walls.

2. The things I hear every day on the street: “hello you man. What is you do?” or “YES! ZIS is ZEE FOOT BALL”

3. The ‘whistler’ a schizophrenic man who used to call me a “stoopid shit stupid blackboard” but now blows me kisses because I bought him breakfast.

4. A dinner of Injera with fresh garlic and hot pepper infused Tegabino – for 75 US cents

5. How anything you could ever need is here. Everything beyond what is locally available is a luxury. Life is simple.

6. The way people tell you exactly what they think about you. For example, people keep telling me I’ve gotten fatter – to my face.

7. Related: People constantly talking about how smart I am. I’m told I’m “gobez” about 45 times a day, and I’m getting kind of used to it.

8. Being able to make a kid bust into an uncontrollable smile.

9. Being able to make a grandmother laugh on the bus.

10. Coffee. Even though I can’t drink it often because of my disease, it’s so rich delicious.

11. Evenings in general. The sunlight is spectacular.

12. Playing catch with Jon down by the Hippo grounds. The baseball gloves were the best things I brought from America.

13. Bumping into Hippos, Antelope, Civet Cats, and monkeys on my way to work.

14. How loosely defined “work” is. Sometimes, work means playing basketball and cooking dinner for my host mom.

15. The opportunity of living in a place where $12,000 can buy a new school.

16. Seasonal food. You appreciate a tomato more when you haven’t had one in four months.

17. Two (three?) hour lunch breaks

18. My friends. They are such genuine people that I feel like I have a dirty mind when I talk to them – Folks like Gezehegn, Yidne, Milkiyas.

19. My Host Family. They treat me like a son.

20. Peace Corps Volunteers. They are generally awesome people.

21. The way people say my name: Mickey! or Mai-KIL!

22. Our rudimentary basketball court and the way the guys have become so much better at basketball in the time I’ve been here.

23. Setting my own schedule and being my own boss.

24. The way respect is given – the more uncomfortable an action, the more implied respect: a low bow is respectful. A lower bow is more respectful. Waving with two hands is better than one.

25. How hungry some of the kids are for knowledge.

26. The stars. I can’t describe how much of a planetarium I live in.

27. Dinners with my host family and Mesfin. Especially when a visitor brings some music. These nights are magical. Live music takes something great and makes it even better.

28. Being able to joke in another language.

29. Feeling like I’m making a difference, even if it is small.

30. Hanging out with the work crew at the school and learning how to lay brick.

31. My kindergarteners at the Hope Academy. They have so much love.

32. Walking to a restaurant late at night with Jon and making great jokes and terrible puns.

33. Feeling robbed when a meal costs more than 2 dollars.

34. The way the whole country stopped to cheer, and cheer more passionately than anything I’ve seen, when Tirunesh won the Gold Medal in the 10,000 meters. It was at 2am.

35. Ambo Water – the sparkling mineral water that costs 40 cents here but 5 dollars in the states. I don’t know how I’ll live without it.

36. The relationships I have with waiters and kids on the street. Our inside jokes and the mutual ability we share to brighten each other’s day.

 

 

Home

Family Home, Mizan Teferi, Ethiopia

Family Home, Mizan Teferi, Ethiopia

Its 1:19 AM and I was sleeping 30 minutes ago. However, I just felt an urge to write. The truth is, I was not awoken by some creative calling, but rather a Hippopotamus. The behemoth is growling so loudly just outside my house, that it sounds like thunder mixed with a cow orgy.  

In fact it is so loud, that I was afraid it (they?) had entered our compound. I went to check it out, but the hippo had retreated to the water.

Life, like this memorable night, is pretty wild right now. My main project is progressing better than I had imagined. Pictures won’t load to my blog, but the school looks just beautiful. Cement has been laid, and the brick walls give the school a 1940’s feel. I am painfully anxious to see the final product. The children will have a transformed place to learn and grow.  Solar light bulbs will soon add some sun to the refurbished walls. The difference is night and day.

Also, doctors from Northwestern University are coming in 6 weeks. Together we’ve been working to address infant and patient mortality during labor. It’s a huge problem here. So we’re fundraising and preparing the invitations for the invited midwives. The doctors will lead a great program that will save many lives.

It’s strange though. Although I have never had this much going on in the present, I’m finding it hard not to wonder about the future. I can’t help but count down the days until I leave. Forgive me for being excited, but I’ve had a handful of hot showers in the past year and I’m going home to the prettiest girl, possibly ever.

Peace Corps told us this would happen, and most of my anticipation is actually rooted in fear. I’m scared of going home. I don’t know where I’ll live or work. My friends have moved all over the place. I don’t know if I’ll readjust well, or how my new mindset will affect those that I love.

But I came to a realization a few moments ago. This is without a doubt the most confusing time in my life. I’m now entering the real world, and coming from the oldest of worlds. All of us, just out of college, are trying to form ourselves, and form an identity. We are branching out and discovering ourselves, and yet this leaves us yearning for home. When we return to our original home, its not quite the same. The people who have made it what it was now live in Colorado, Tennessee and Europe. How do we bridge the gap between staying close to our roots, our families and remaining friends, yet find a place that calls to us in a special way.

But really, none of these things really matter. They are just the self-obsessed fears of a self-esteem driven generation.  I’m worried about finding a great job, being comfortable, and if I can spend 900 dollars a month on an apartment. I worry that I won’t be a great boyfriend, and that I missed out on some great years with great friends.

Meanwhile, my favorite man in Ethiopia just lost his young wife to Cancer. The labor manager at the school just accidentally killed his daughter while chopping down firewood. The tiny tree fell at just the right angle to kill her. She was six. Floods, the same one that brought the hippo to my doorstep, destroyed homes by the river. One kid drowned. Months ago, Carly took a family photo and delivered it to a beautiful woman and her several daughters who live on the road. One of her daughters died on Wednesday.

My trivial worries, our collective 20-something worries may dominate our minds. But in the breadth and depth of the human struggle, they mean so little.

We want to find the perfect job, home and happiness. But it’s important to remember not to worry too much about things that will one day be resolved. Things worth worrying about generally present themselves when you least expect them, and remind us of how good we had it beforehand.

So for those of us living in the beforehand, let’s take a second to enjoy the moment, count our blessings and remember that home is sometimes not a physical place but a state of mind.

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.

 

 

Lessons from Kombucha

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.”

Encounters

Here are three encounters of mine from last week. Nothing exciting here, but I think it gives a look into the social complexities of being an American in a small town Peace Corps environment.

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Jon and I went out for dinner to a local restaurant. We ordered a dish called ‘Bayenet’ which translates to “each type.” It is a fasting food that combines several types of spicy bean stews, lentils, and cooked vegetables over Injera. It’s a staple of life here. While we are eating, an outgoing waiter comes up to our table, and just starts eating off our plate, his fingers soaking up as much of the stew as the sponge-like Injera.

While he chews, he makes attempts at conversation. He uses the command form, “Techewot” (translation: Play!) to break the awkward silence. I start to think about my reality: What is stranger to me is not that our waiter is eating off of our plate. What concerns me is that I no longer consider this strange.

How would that fly in the States I wonder?

********************************

In our towns we all have people we really don’t like running into. For some of us, we even walk specific routes to avoid these folks. Or we just hang out in our house for a weekend. Some of these locals are truly problematic: drunks and beggars who harass and shout. Perhaps worse, I am sorry to admit, are the people you can’t simply blow off. They might have good intentions, but they habitually ask you for things, talk about themselves, and won’t let you escape with a simple hello.

One such person lives a few blocks away, and is very proud of the fact he occasionally works with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He always shakes my hand for too long and is strangely obsessed with my hair. He thinks his English is a lot better than it is, and is always telling me about how his name means ‘development’. Here was our last exchange. In parenthesis are my thoughts.

D: Michael. Michael! It is me, development!!!

(shit) Hello development.

D: Where are you go?

(Quick! think of something important) I’m going to a meeting (brilliant!)

D: Wonderful! How is Mr. Dave. Mr Dave is good man. He is strong worker. Strong man. He America went? By the way, now you must fix my computer.

(Yeah that’s not happening) Yeah that’s not happening.

D: You see you will come to my office and look. You can fix it on Monday.

(How do I get out of this conversation?) Sorry Sir, I’m just not good with computers. You are better off asking someone else.

D: You know I work with Bill Gates? He is world RICHEST MAN. Number one in zee world.

You’ve told me before. That is quite exciting.

D: You will come visit with me yes. Shall I invite you? Coffee? tea

(I need to remember not to walk this way) Thank you but I am very late for…

D: Michael I must tell you! Your hair is so desirable. It is like woman. For me. I must tell you that for Ethiopians, hair is the most desirable. Body is less important. But your hair to me is most desirable.

(I need to cut my hair, and probably wash my hands when I get home) Thank you! I was going for the woman thing.

D: Surely! It is the most beautiful. I would surely like to touch it.

(Get out. Get out. Get out. ) Ok Development. Thank you, It was nice to see you, but I’m very late for my meeting. See you! Goodbye! Bye! Ciao!

I retreat to Jon’s House.

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Last night, four Americans gather on my porch. My fellow volunteers and I are watching a massive lightning storm while they sip on some of the world’s worst wine. Jon and I are joined by our newer counterparts, Chuck and Laura. Later that evening we will make some Indian curry and watch Red Dawn. For those of you not familiar with this gem, Red Dawn is a 1980’s movie that stars Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen as brothers fighting a guerilla war in the Rocky Mountains against a Communist Nicaraguan/Russian takeover of the Midwest. Epic, right? I’m having a hard time deciding if it is the best or worst movie I’ve ever seen and may just conclude that it is both.

But first, we hang out on the porch, watching the lightning. The rain starts to come down hard, and it is a welcome sight. We are just getting out of the worst dry season in years. It rained twice in 3 months. (Not great when you live in a rainforest.) Water was very scarce during this time, and I learned to shower with a 2-liter bottle of water.

So as the rain comes pouring down a gutter, Jon looks at me.

Jon: “I almost want to take a shower, or at least wash my hair”

Me: (Taking my shirt off) Yep.

Jon: Cool I’ll grab the shampoo.

Chuck and Laura: Let’s never turn into them.