No more Ethiopia?

My time with Peace Corps has ended – which means I have left Ethiopia and returned to the states. It’s been such a bitter sweet feeling. Without Ethiopia I feel like a part of me is missing but I am so thrilled to have the comforts of home again.

I will admit, Ethiopia Catalog wasn’t the best showcasing of my writing efforts.

After much consideration I have decided to end Ethiopia Catalog and move my thoughts to a new blog:
Allison From Portland

With the freedom to write whatever my little heart desires I hope to get some honest thoughts out about Ethiopia, Peace Corps, and what my life has become since reintegrating into American culture. I promise you Allison From Portland is going to deliver some exciting, heartbreaking, and relatable content.

I want to thank each and every one of you who read Ethiopia Catalog  – whether you loved it or hated it, agreed of disagreed, or thought I was just really flaky because I couldn’t get a consistent schedule down for posting.

If you’d like to follow me to see what’s next I encourage you to subscribe

Allison From Portland



10 Admirable Ethiopian Habits

A few weeks ago I wrote about 10 Ethiopian Habits that Americans would find totally strange. This time around I want to bring you habits that I find 100% enduring and lovable. Most of my days here are filled with stress and “OMG, I’m going to kill someone” moments – but when these habits shine through all the craziness I can’t help but smile. 

10 Admirable Ethiopian Habits

1. Hospitality runs deep. Ethiopians welcome you into their homes with open arms. In the states we say “oh yea, stop by anytime” – which really means “umm I’m just going to be polite and say visit me…but please don’t… unless you give me a weeks notice.” But Ethiopians really mean it. And if you don’t do it they will find you! And when you do stop in you’ll be welcomed with a 15 minute greeting, more food than your stomach an handle, and 3 cups of bunna (coffee)… And of course instructions to come again soon.

2. Once a friend, always a friend. Ethiopians are really good at networking and keeping connections. Everyone I meet ALWAYS remembers me; I thought this was because I’m ferenji and completely unique but it turns out everyone remembers everyone. You could meet someone once, all the way across the country, exchange phone numbers, a year later call them up to say “hey I’m going to be in your area, can I crash at your pad?” and they’d be more than happy to say yes. It really amazes me. And it really makes me feel ashamed because unlike Ethiopians, I do not have a talent for remembering faces and names.

3. When they love you, they really love you. These people love with all their hearts. I have been very fortunate to find such a caring and supportive community in my town. My landlady and landlord are definitely my parents-away-from-home. From the minute I stepped foot onto their compound I was “theirs”. If they hear I have been mistreated in any way they pass up the typical habesha (Ethiopian) response of ” just ignore it” and immediately hunt down the offender to let them know what’s up. I have also been very lucky to find an amazing friend in my office. Despite me being the “town weirdo”, he accepts 100 % for who I am – craziness and all. He has never been one to point out our cultural differences – which makes me feel “normal” and I appreciate from the bottom of my heart.  

4. An infinity of cultures. Okay, not really. But Ethiopia has over 80 cultures within the country. And each one is totally unique in cuisine, music, dress. Observing all the different cultures is my favorite part of Ethiopia. I haven’t visited all the regions but I’ve picked some of my favorite cultural categories. Gurage has the best, best, best music and dancing. Gojam has pretty trendy style with their short-shorts for men. And everywhere in Tigray has hair that puts all other regions to shame.

5. Gorshas. I mentioned these in a previous post. A gorsha is when you shove a handful of food into someone else’s mouth with your hand. It sounds disgusting, and most of the time is, but it’s one of he strongest forms of endearment here. It’s filled with love! As a guest in the country I get gorsha’d at almost every meal I eat outside of my home. Usually the amount of food is three times the size of my mouth, and it spills everywhere, but every gorsha is followed with smiles and laughter. 

6. Communal eating. To go with gorshas is the communal eating. Most meals are served on a large serving platter that everyone at the table eats from – with their hands (no silverware in this country). It’s a germaphobic’s worst nightmare. But it totally brings a sense of community to every meal – thus make every bite full of love (awww). 

7. Community babies! My mom used to tell me in Norway woman would leave heir babies outside the supermarket, just chilling in their strollers. When one would cry a stranger would walk by, put a pacifier in its mouth, and keep on walking. I ways thought this was crazy… until I came to Ethiopia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the office, on the bus, or walking down the road when a random person would hand me their baby. At first I was like, “hey, I’m a stranger… I could kidnap this little cutie” but now I just love it! The community is strong here – everyone knows everyone and the bad seeds are easy to spot. So trust is a major thing. Nothing brightens up my day like holding a random, giggling, squirmy Ethiopian baby. 

8. They know how to let things go. I can hold a grudge like no other. That girl who got the lead in my dance recital when I was 6 is still on my shit list. But Ethiopians know how to forgive and forget. Habesha are very opinionated, thus thousands of tiny little arguments happen every day – coffee with salt vs. coffee with sugar, she stole my style, I didn’t like the way you did you hair for your wedding… okay, since my Amharic is horrible I don’t actually understand what they are arguing about but I imagine it’s things along these lines. But it seems like no matter how small or big they always are able to walk away in good terms. I totally don’t understand it but I give mad respect. 

9. Pride. Ethiopians have tremendous pride in their country. I don’t even bother watching Ethiopian news anymore because all my friends fill me in on what’s going on in the country and how their country is helping the world. Not only are they masters of current events but they also know their history better than any other culture I could imagine. Every holiday I get the full back story of how that holiday emerged and why it is still so special to their people… and trust me, there are a lot of holidays in this country. They also manage to sneak the Ethiopian flag on to everything, I mean EVERYTHING – food, floors, busses, underwear (!!!) – you name it and green, yellow, and red are on it.  

10. Innovation. Ethiopian children are some of the most innovative people I have ever seen. Every day I pass by even the smallest of children making games out of rocks, toy guns from mud, and cars from wires. They really can take anything they find and run with it. This thirst for new ideas continues with them into adolescence – where almost every child will tell you they want to be an engineer or doctor; and then far into adulthood – where they continuously look for new technologies and methods to improve their country. 

If you’re in another Peace Corps what cultural habits does your country have that you would like to see more of in America?

Peace Corps Guilt

Guilt is something I’ve lived with my entire life. As humans I think we are prone to feel guilty/ It’s human nature, my friends. But some people are more susceptible to it – and I am definitely one of them.  I felt guilty when I looked at my Christmas presents early as a child. I felt guilty when I was angry with God that my mom had cancer. I felt guilty when I chose to go to business school instead of medical school and let my father down. But my efforts during my Peace Corps service is NOT something I feel guilty about.

This article talks about the guilt of taking time for ourselves, living above the average, not being sustainable, and failing to save the world. I think these are all the pretty standard Peace Corps guilts. I would bet my entire monthly stipend that most volunteers experience these feelings at some point during their service. I certainly have. But as my service went on, cas ba cas (little by little), I learned to let go of that guilt. And by a little just over the year mark I learned to live guilt-free.

At 14 months into my service…

I don’t feel guilty that I take time to myself. Life vest theory – “Assist yourself before you assist others”. I can be pretty bitchy on my bad days, but I can guarantee you I’d be an even bigger bitch if I didn’t have those small moments every day where I collect my thoughts and process everything.

I don’t feel guilty that I sometimes live about the average. There is a wide range of lifestyles in my town. Some live very simple lives. Some live very wealthy lives. My neighbors and I… I like to think we have pretty comparable living situations. We have the same size rooms, eat the same food, and all squat over the same hole.  They chose to spend their extra cash on satellite TV and I chose to spend mine on a weekend in the city and a new pair of shoes (that rainy season ruined in one week… the TV would have been a better investment). And yes, I could give more to those who don’t have it but is just giving really sustainable?

I don’t feel guilty about not being sustainable. I haven’t actually done a whole lot of work while in Peace Corps. I’ve wanted to; there have just always been barriers – language, time, cultural sensitivity. The little work I have done probably won’t be sustainable though – no teachers will volunteer to run the clubs after I’m gone, no one in the office will bother to do the tasks everyone sweeps under the rug. But I like to believe in the moment the lessons I taught were meaningful. The health club won’t be continued but that 13 year old boy will continue to believe HIV can be eliminated by education, not free handouts of medicine.

And I definitely do not feel guilty for not saving the world. I did not join Peace Corps to save the world. To think you can save the world is in itself a selfish thought. The people of the countries Peace Corps serves do not need to be “saved”. They aren’t broken. They merely need to learn to use their resources. Peace Corp Volunteers move in to a community, observe their needs and assets, address the community, and discuss a feasible community-based solution. We don’t work magic and we aren’t meant to. In my opinion we’re simply meant to instill critical thinking.

The article goes on to talk about the guilt of our lifestyles back home. Compared to the people of my town in Ethiopia I live pretty luxuriously. Compared to the wealthy residents of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, I live in different conditions but they honestly probably wouldn’t consider it luxurious. I do not feel guilty for my American lifestyle. A universal living standard does not and will not ever exist. Different countries have different resources and present different opportunities for living. In America I wasn’t rich. But by any means I was not poor either  – I always had a meal on the table, a roof over my head, and whether I had to do it by a sickening amount of loans or not – a chance to get an education. I don’t regret any of this because I worked for it. I was lucky enough to be born into a situation that allowed me to climb my way up in life. If I had this opportunity and didn’t appreciate it or had taken advantage of it, I would hope I feel guilty. But I haven’t done wrong; therefore I do not feel guilty for working hard.

And my last thought… I did not join Peace Corps out of guilt. Some people join Peace Corps because they feel the need to give back, and that’s fine. Giving is definitely a reason why I joined Peace Corps but I didn’t feel the need to do it. I joined partly out of my love of helping other people, my curiosity of what the world was like outside of my tiny existence, and to do some self-discovery (some argue this is definitely a selfish reason to join, but that’s a whole other debate). Guilt was never on the list and it never will be. I can say though, after my 27 months in Ethiopia I will definitely go back to my American lifestyle more appreciative. I hope to live a simpler life with more meaning behind my actions. I’ve done good with my life so far, but I can do more.

10 Headscratching Ethiopian Habits

I’ve lived in Ethiopia for over a year now and it has been quite the cultural adventure. About 75% of the time I don’t have a clue what is going on. But the 25% of the time I do know what’s up I got the culture down! Every now and then I’ll do something and my sitemate will tell me I am “sooo Ethiopian”. And it’s true, I’ve picked up a few Ethiopian habits that aren’t quite the norm for Americans. But there countless Ethiopian habits that would make Americans scratch their heads. Some I’ve adopted, some I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But either way I’d like to introduce you to the top 10 I find most common:

I present to you 10 Ethiopian habits that would make Americans scratch their heads:

  1. Bargaining: Price tags are a foreign concept here. No items have them. And because no items have them the seller can set whatever price he wants. It’s expected whatever price you’re given you will always counter it with a lower price. And if you’re a foreigner it’s a known fact that price will already be doubled for you. This is how it works. An Ethiopian wants to buy a pair of shoes. The store owner tells them 400 birr. They spend 5 minutes bargaining the price down to 250 and walk away with said shoes. Now, a foreigner wants the shoes. The store owner tells them 800 birr. The foreigner spends 20 minutes bargaining the price down to 600 birr and walks away with no shoes. Lesson learned: Always bring an Ethiopian when shopping.
  1. Not standing in line: LINES DO NOT EXIST IN ETHIOPIA. Whether you’re buying food, getting your mail, entering a bus… lines just don’t happen here. My first encounter with this was my first time at the bank when I had put my book at the window and next thing I knew 10 other people were putting theirs on top of mine and pushing me to the back. I was so appalled! But I quickly learned that this is just how things are in Ethiopia. If you want something, especially a seat on the bus, you push your way to the front no matter who is in your way. It shames me to say I have adopted this practice but if you don’t you literally won’t get anywhere.

  1. Throwing insults: No Ethiopian will be afraid to tell you you’re fat, ask you what’s wrong with your face, or critique your behavior. To them it’s just stating a fact or observation but for American it’s incredibly insulting. I’ve always been taught not to draw attention to someone’s flaws (I don’t think flaws is the right word but you get the point). My mom told me if I don’t have anything nice to say then I better keep my mouth shut. But in Ethiopia you can say whatever you want! I think this is one of the Ethiopian habits I hate the most.

8. When someone points out your flaws because it's culturally okay to do so.

  1. Wearing mumus: Or as they’re called in my area, “shitties”. Shitties are large pieces of fabric cut into loose dresses that reach to the ground (or if you’re short like me, an extra foot past your own feet). To adjust the length you roll the sides into your underwear! Ethiopian women wear these in their homes, in the streets, wherever they please. And I love it! I probably buy AT LEAST one a month. I like to call them my, “no fucks are given” outfit.
  1. Coffee breaks: Ethiopians like to say they take shay-bunna (tea-coffee) breaks twice a day. But this is a lie! On an average day at work I can be invited to coffee anywhere between 2 to 5 times a day. If the power goes out you go to coffee. If you’re bored you go to coffee. If someone enters the office that you haven’t seen all day you go to coffee. Then you go home and have evening coffee. It’s a lot of coffee but I’m going to be honest with you, this is my single most favorite part of Ethiopia!

  1. Being late for everything: Okay, this isn’t a habit I’ve picked up at all but it’s worth mentioning. Ethiopians are perpetually late for everything. If you have a meeting Tuesday at 1:00 PM they will probably show up at 1:45 PM, or 3:00 PM, or Wednesday at 9:00 AM, or next week. OR not show up at all and ask you why YOU didn’t show up. Due to this it’s basically pointless to schedule any form of meeting.

  1. Staying inside when it rains: I come from what seems like the rain capital of America so I am slightly ashamed to admit this one. When it rains Ethiopians just don’t go outside. If it rains in the morning you wait until it has 100% stopped to go to work. If you have to go to school you just don’t go. If you’re walking and it starts to rain you step aside ad stand with all the other Ethiopians under the tiny porch of a random store and wait for it to stop. At first I thought this was crazy since every Ethiopian woman carries an umbrella. But after experiencing rainy season in a town with absolutely no paved roads I completely support this idea.

  1. Inhaling for confirmation: It’s a cross between an inhale and a gasp. But don’t do it too loud, otherwise everyone freaks out that something is wrong! During conversation you inhale at random points to let them know you’re following along or agree with what they say. It’s like saying, “ya, I get you bro”. This is something I never noticed I picked up but apparently do all the time, as my friends like to point out.
  1. Shoulder bumps, and kisses, and handshakes, OH MY! I think it’s a national law that you have to greet every person you pass on the street. That or everyone just knows everyone. But when Ethiopians greet each other there’s a number of ways it can go. You can shake hands and continuously ask, “Are you fine? I am fine. You are fine? You have Peace? I am fine.” Or you can shake hands and bump shoulders… which makes me feel soooo gangster. Or you can give cheek kisses. Normaly it’s two or three kisses but I like to think the more kisses you get the more you’re their favorite person. Most people give me four… no big deal.
  1. Gorshas: A gorsha is when another person uses their hand to put food in your mouth. I imagine my American readers are probably cringing at this thought for two reasons – 1. We don’t normally use our hands to eat and 2. We usually leave feeding other people for love-sick couples. No fear, I can assure you that in Ethiopia feeding someone with your hand is one of the grandest gestures you can give. Volunteers have either come to love it or hate it. It can be extremely awkward or… well, it’s normally just awkward but you smile and go with it because everyone does it. Grandma does it, children do it, strangers do it. Basically, if you don’t do it you’re not in the cool crowd.

Year One Completed?!

I have officially been serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia for one year now (actually, one year and one month). I tell my sitemate all the time that it’s so weird to be able to say, “One year ago this happened in town…” or “One year ago we did this.”  It’s even weirder (more weird?) to see my newest sitemate, Annie, who is also a health volunteer to begin her service and think of how I was in her shoes a full 365 days ago.

Over the past year a lot of people have asked where I have been, why haven’t I blogged, why don’t I keep anyone updated. Well the answer is because I didn’t want to – betam yikirta (excuse me very much). The truth is my first year as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) was bitter sweet. I’ve never had high highs and low lows that I never even imagined possible. There were days I wanted to invite every person I knew to come experience the magnificent land and culture of Ethiopia. And then there were days I was convinced this place was hell on earth (Sorry Ethiopia!). These ups and downs led me to spend much of this past year evaluating my purpose here, what I should be doing with me life, and overall who I am as a person.

During this time of self-exploration I just couldn’t bring myself to find the energy to write something tha accurately reflected how I felt. I couldn’t paint a false picture of my service being completely wonderful. And I couldn’t let people wrongly believe that I detest it here all the time. I wanted to let people know how I was doing but I felt guilty complaining and venting when most people assume the stereotype of Peace Corps beginning an amazing adventure and opportunity to change the world – it’s not! I didn’t want people to judge me. I didn’t want people to pity me.  So I kept silent.

I apologize for my absence. I love my blog. I love to share with my family and friends and the amazing random people who for some reason follow this mess. But I love my sanity even more and keeping silent was the only way to (or at least attempt to) keep it. I can’t promise regular updates for my upcoming second year but I can assure you I am now mentally ready for you all to be a part of it.

So to welcome you to my second year of service I’d like to share some of my favorite memories from my very long, frustrating, rewarding first year of service – in no particular order:

*Please excuse the lack of photos – it could possibly take another year to upload images with Ethiopian “internet”

  • “Delia tries to cross the river.” My wonderful and creative sitemate decided to make an amazing English IMG_3370documentary about our town with her students. At one point we had to cross one of our town’s rivers – of course we took the route without the bridge (or as I refer to it – the death trap). Delia was scared to cross so her loving students jumped in the river to hold her hand and cheer her on as she crossed.
  • “Gobez (excellent) students celebrate the holidays!” To say we don’t play favorites with our students here would be a flat out lie. Delia and I have a group of seven students that are beyond wonderful in everything they do. They have been with Delia since her beginning and have welcomed me with open arms. For both Thanksgiving and Christmas we invited these seven students into my home for American style holiday meals. We cooked American-ish foods that we enjoy and knew would be a new taste for them (potatoes, Spanish rice, salad) and ate picnic style on floor. The boys were such troopers in trying a new style of food and dining. They loved it so much they even helped prepare the food – a task normally left for Ethiopian females.
  • “I will protect you… and I will surprise you” Once upon a time Delia and I had a third sitemate (we no longer have him…). When he came to visit the town for the first time a random man on the street greeted him by saying, “Sir! I will protect you… and I will surprise you!” Living in Ethiopia for as long as we have we have grown to know random protection by strangers and surprises are not things that should go hand-in-hand (and certainly are not safe!).
  • “Ethiopia Catalog hits the big time.” That one time my Packing List post was featured on the official Peace Corps blog, Passport, was pretty cool. Check it out here!
  • “America takes on Ethiopia.” I have had two visitors from America sinc2e coming here… okay, technically only one. My best bestie Emmy visited me for a week in March 2015. We didn’t go see any big historical sites but being able to show her my town and my oh-so-mundane daily routine was pretty amazing. She never complained once about the dirt, bugs, or smells! Back in October an Ethiopian friend (and my previous employer) from the states’ husband (who is also Ethiopian) came to the capital for business. I had never met him before but he was such a sweetheart to find me in Addis, bring me a gift, and have a great conversation over dinner. Although he didn’t come to Ethiopia for the purpose of me, I consider him my first visitor and am forever thankful for him.

  • “Robe, Bahir Dar, & South Africa” No, I didn’t visit South Africa. In October Delia and I attended a training for an HIV-focused soccer program based from South Africa. The training took part in Bahir Dar, one of Ethiopia’s tourist towns. We were both able to invite an Ethiopian counterpart so we took two men from our town that are good friends of ours and even more amazing support for youth in our town. It turns out that this was also their first trip to Bahir Dar (even their first air plane rides, how cute!) so we were able to explore the town together! We visited the Blue Nile and had an amazing time. Training was awesome also.

These are just a few of the moments that have kept me going throughout my service. Most days I hit a low spot but I think back to the experiences that have made fall in love with this place and I bounce back. Here’s hoping my second year of service will be filled with as much adventure and challenges as the first.

Monthly Recap: November 2014


November marked Thanksgiving spent in Asella with our Ethiopian friends and Arsi Zone volunteers. When we returned home Delia and I celebrates Thanksgiving with our Travel Club students. We taught the students about the history of Thanksgiving and the American traditions we hold. Students decorated paper leaves, writing what they are thankful for, and made a “Thanksgiving” tree, which was displayed in the classroom. We also invited our seven advance English club students to my house for a Thanksgiving feast.