Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thirteen Months of Sunshine

Whoever coined this slogan for Ethiopia obviously never lived in the country. For starters: sunshine? Haven't seen a truly sunny day up here in the north since May. The rain has been pounding my roof incessantly for the last 36 hours. The only option in footwear these days are my beauty Target rain boots, much to the delight of the townsfolk. I have adapted. I can't describe the fear that grips me every time I start down the road in and out of my house. The mud is a force to be reckoned with. It almost got the best of me- I had a nearly fatal slip. I escaped with only one arm coated in mud up to the elbow. I can't hope to be so fortunate next time. Next, lets evaluate this thirteenth "month." Since we like to be uniform with our calendar, we give each month 30 days. This leaves us with 5 day left over, which we give the name Pagumey and call a "month." Five days isn't even a week. It doesn't deserve to be named, much less incorporated into a national slogan.

As messy as the rain makes everything, everyone is thankful for it. I've never experienced life that is so dependent on the weather for survival. Never fully grasped what it means for people to see the rivers fill up and the land coming to life. Never recognized how much food security can ease burdens and give confidence. I've taken Wal-Mart and its never-ending supply of food for granted.

Much has happened since I last updated… most significantly- my college roommate of three years, Jen, came to Ethiopia! She has been traveling the world with a team studying the UN millennium development goals and they stopped in Ethiopia for two weeks. The team was awesome and let me follow them around for the whole two weeks… beginning the day of their arrival at 3:30am when I met them at the airport and where I may or may not have squealed and plowed into Jen immediately upon seeing her. They looked at projects around and to the south of Addis, allowing me to see a side of Ethiopia I've never experienced. It was so encouraging to go to places like the Hamlin Fistula hospital where women are so thoroughly cared for and nurtured. Women who were previously ostracized from their families and communities because of injuries that arise from complications in childbirth are suddenly given lodging, food, clothing, blankets, surgery, physical therapy, literacy classes, skills training, legal counsel, and medical follow-up. They are treated with love, dignity, and respect. I can't imagine what this must mean for a woman who has had to bear the shame of leaking urine uncontrollably. The team also visited orphanages, technical schools that assist orphans in developing job skills, midwifery-training programs, and sports programs that help youth build life skills for the future. I came away excited about the things that are going on in Ethiopia and encouraged to try and help those who are doing such good work.

Much of the team's time was spent in the rural and beautiful area of Langano working with the Selam Water is Life well-digging program. I've never been in a place like Langano- the poverty is stark even in contrast with the Finote. The kids have the red highlights in their hair and distended bellies- whether from malnutrition or worms. Water is Life is working to bring safe drinking water as well as physical, spiritual, and economic growth to the rural poor. Again, I was amazed at the thoroughness of the program. They've thought of everything. They start with the foundation of serving people out of the love of Christ. They build on this by providing clean water and sanitation education, which reduces the number of people suffering from amoebas and diarrhea. It also enables people to plant gardens and keep them watered during dry season. The staple crop in this area is corn, which doesn't lead to a very balanced or diversified diet. I've never seen so many corn fields. For miles- as far as the eye can see- corn. They are hoping to see improved nutrition as a result of greater access to water. Water is Life hopes to one day introduce micro-enterprise training with the end goal of job creation that would enable these people to move past subsistence living.

One of the highlights for me about the time at Langano was getting to know the well-digging teams. Digging the wells is intense, arm-straining, blister-inducing work that is done by using a pulley to slam a drill bit into the ground. Community members provide the labor so that they are able to take ownership of the device that will so impact their lives. They are led by guys in their mid-to-late 20s who have been trained by Selam Water is Life. Most of them were brought up in the Selam Orphanage and attended the Selam Technical School. Yared, the leader of the teams, is by far one of the most incredible Ethiopians. Ever. Right behind Emperor Haile Selassie but before Teddy Afro definitely. He was orphaned at age 8 when his parents were killed during the war between the Derg and the opposition. His mother was killed while holding Yared and he too was injured and spent time in a hospital before going to the orphanage. He rose to become a shop master at the technical school before being asked to help with the new water initiative. His impact among the communities he serves is apparent. He could easily be mayor. Everyone knows Yared's name and his affection for the people is contagious. Despite setbacks and the loss of more of his family, Yared continues to be hopeful, to set high goals. He is not content with his job even though he his given much responsibility and even a pick-up truck (kind of a big deal). He wants to continue his education, to learn more about engineering, so that he can continue to serve others. The other guys had similar stories and incredible work ethic as well… I learned a lot from them.

Something else that I learned while with the team is how quickly my concept of what is and is not normal changes these days. For instance, when Jen was here it seemed like a very normal thing to be crammed into the cab of a pickup with my roommate and Yared chasing hyenas through the local landfill. It seemed like this was how things were supposed to be, how they always had been. Not unusual at all. Who doesn't spend their evenings chasing hyenas? It's been a strange to readjust to just hearing the hyenas howl down the street from my house, not being brave enough to go out and chase them on my own. Just doesn't seem pertinent to chase hyenas without a pickup truck. Or my roommate.

To help recover from the loss of Jen, I immediately traveled to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. There I met another college friend, Alisha, for five days of seafood, sand, and water. You may be thinking, "my, but it seems that Kristen has taken to being away from the Finote for long periods of time." It's true. But the students I work with have all gone back to their families for the summer so I don't have much to do. Lay off. I will now share some facts on Zanzibar.

* As you fly in, you'll note the remarkable number of paved streets. What infrastructure!
* Guests from South Africa to Zanzibar will say things like, "I'm so ready to leave. This place is so dirty" and "If I have to eat one more egg-oh-my-gosh I'll just die." I myself was astounded that they A) have white buildings and B) manage to keep them white. And the Mexican omelet was simply tasty and delicious. I'd eat one right now.
* People say things like, "I don't know, but I imagine in my head…" What a creative way to give people wrong directions! I respect that.
* Zanzibarians are healthy. No malnourished babies, no contestants for the Gojam-No-Leg Competition. Just normal sized people. I attribute this to the wide variety of food available to them.
* Lobster, crab, shrimp, prawns, shark, octopus, fish, tuna, chicken… so much chicken. And eggplant. I didn't even know I liked eggplant.
* Ice cream. So much ice cream. Sometimes twice a day. I'm not ashamed.
* There is an active "Zanzibar for Obama" Association, complete with life-sized portraits. The man who runs it has business cards which state 'Zanzibar for Obama Volunteer. Also expert tour guide.' He also has a petition you can sign… not really sure what he's petitioning for or why exactly Zanzibar is for Obama, but that's just funny.
* Fotozani occurs nightly. A dark alley crowed with vendors grilling up their catch of the day. Or yesterday's catch. Or maybe the day before that? Who knows really how long the seafood you're eating has been sitting there. All that matters is that it's not served on injera and it's delicious.
* Not only are the showers hot in Zanzibar, but they come out of the spigot with gusto! It's like they're excited about being bountiful and so hot that they want everyone to be happy about being clean. As much as I love cold water bucket baths… wait… nope. No I don't.
* Beaches, waves, sand, water, Indian Ocean.
* Mountain Dew. There is Mountain Dew in Zanzibar. Mt. Dew is easy to forget about. It's one of those things you only drink on long road trips or with your dad while eating subs & bar-b-q chips. You don't realize you miss it until you see it. Then you must have it immediately.

So that's life lately. I'm back in the Finote after being away for quite awhile. Getting off the bus is always the hardest part of coming back. That feeling of losing all anonymity, of everyone knowing you, of having every move observed and commented upon… it's intimidating. But after you make that first step you remember that you have friends here and that you're really excited to see them again. I wouldn't mind, however, if the whole town didn't hear that I slipped in the mud. I have to go get some sleep now. My landlord just graduated with a diploma in veterinary science and we're having a big party tomorrow. Gotta get up early and help slaughter the chicken. Yum. Miss you all. Much love