First three months in Ethiopia!

You are currently reading my first blog post as an official Peace Corps Volunteer – congratulations to you (and me)! Now, you may be asking yourself what this whole “official volunteer” business is about since I left America to start volunteering in Ethiopia three months ago (exactly three months from the day I wrote this blog entry… who knows when I will actually get to post it… IT TOOK NEARLY A MONTH TO POST!). The truth is, for the last three months I have only been an official Peace Corps TRAINEE. The first three months in any Peace Corps country are called Pre-Service Training (PST) and you must complete this to be sworn in as a volunteer. PST consists of some pretty intense language classes, technical training on our job sectors, and Peace Corps policy training… all while living with a host family. I can assure you this time period of my life was no joke! It is often said that Pre-Service Training is the hardest part about Peace Corps and I can definitely see why. For me, PST felt like three months of culture shock and constantly trying to stay on top of my own game.

Pre-service training for my group of Ethiopian volunteers, G10, was spent in a town called Butajira. We were the second group of three groups that will train in this town. Because there was a group of volunteers in town only 5 or 6 months before us the locals were definitely accustomed to seeing ferenji (foreigners) around. A day didn’t pass by that I wasn’t called out to, high fived, or followed for blocks. No hiding in that town!

Each of us lived with a host family that showed us Ethiopian culture and traditions. Some host families had had volunteers from the previous group but mine happened to be a first-time host family. I lived with my host mom T’sgereda (31), two sisters Aiden (7) and Emily (2), and brother Etan (5). My host dad worked at an NGO in the capital and came home about once a month during my stay there. The first time I saw my house I was shocked! My compound was huge with multiple houses and an impressive amount of trees and plants. I’m not going to lie – when moving to Ethiopia I thought my house would be a small mud house surrounded by dry grass. I was obviously wrong.  My house was definitely more modern than I had expected. We had electricity and an extremely cold shower (running water is running water and I will not complain about that). There was carpet in the living room and an electric stovetop in the kitchen. Ethiopia is definitely one of the harder Peace Corps countries but living in Butajira was not too shabby.

My house is on the left and my classroom is the green building on the right

My bedroom

My bedroom

My host family

We had monkeys!

One thing about PST that is very different from actual service is that our day-to-day life is scheduled hour by hour. Monday – Friday I had full days of 8 am – 5:30 pm language classes and technical trainings. Some days could even be up to 6 hours of language (this were my worst days). By the end of the day I was always ready for dinner, a shower, and going straight to bed. Saturdays were half a day of language class and a test on the week’s material. Sundays were free for us to do what we pleased but because the week was so full I often spent these days catching up on e-mails and hand washing my laundry in the yard. But with the hectic schedule comes some of the most exciting moments you will experience while in country.

Jeannie and Jeff - my only two classmates

Jeannie and Jeff – my only two classmates

My classroom for language

My classroom for language

In May we got the pleasure of “site announcement”! Site announcement is like Christmas for PC trainees. The staff puts on a ceremony where we each find out where our homes will be for the next 27 months. One by one our names are pulled out of a hat and we go to a map of Ethiopia and pin our faces over our towns. There are four regions that we can be sent to throughout Ethiopia. Those who learn Tigrigna language go to Tigray, Afan Oromo to Oromia, and Amharic speakers end up going to either Amhara or Southern Nations. My name wasn’t called for Amhara so I assumed I would be going to Southern Nations… yet again, I was wrong (I’m learning to never assume anything about Ethiopia). When my name was called for Oromia I’m pretty sure I had a look of straight confusion. My town was chosen for me because the working language is supposed to be Amharic. I quickly learned during site visit that that is not 100% true.

The Oromia region group

Pinning my picture on the map

After site announcement we were sent on site visit – a 4 or 5 day stay in your town, guided by your community liaison. When I first arrived in my town I was overwhelmed by the fact that it was nearly a 9 hour bus ride from Addis, the amount of dirt and mud that covered everything, and that the majority of the town speaks Afan Oromo and I do not. I was scared to death for what the next two years will hold for me! My first full day was spent with my community liaison visiting all the important sites around town – the health centers, schools, health office (where I will work), police station, post office, hospital, and most important – my house! The rest of my stay was spent with my site mate, Delia. I think I can say hands down I have the best site mate out of all of Peace Corps. Visiting site was hugely emotionally overwhelming and Delia somehow managed to make everything fall into place. She made sure I had food to eat, visited everything Peace Corps instructed me to, and made sure I felt safe at any given moment. I tagged along to her classes and was absolutely astonished by the amount of respect she had in town. By the end of my visit she had realizing that although the town may not be the prettiest or cleanest on the outside, underneath the surface is a town filled with brilliant and caring people.

My house is on the left

My house is on the left

The compound of my office - which is shared with a finance building and Ethiopian "Red Cross"

The compound of my office – which is shared with a finance building and Ethiopian “Red Cross”

In April the health trainees took a trip to Ambo and the environment trainees went to Awash Park. Our trip to Ambo was half pleasure and half business. We visited the hospital and a few health offices. I was extremely impressed with an office for people with disabilities that one of the Ambo volunteers works with. Having plenty of experience with the Office of Disabilities back home I was glad to see the office in Ambo fought extremely hard for people with disabilities and offered incredible resources. Thanks to this office I’m hoping to find something similar around my town to work with. For our recreational portion of the trip we hiked down a mountain to a crater lake called Wonchi Lake. This was probably the most beautiful thing I have seen in Ethiopia. It felt like I was right back in Oregon. Unfortunately my photos of the trip got deleted so I am borrowing some from my friend Caitlin.

Wonchi Lake

Wonchi Lake

Playing soccer

Playing soccer

Holly, me, Melanie, Jeannie, Caitlin on top of the lake

Holly, me, Melanie, Jeannie, Caitlin on top of the lake

April consisted of Camp Glow. Our entire training group was split into four teams and given about a month and half to plan camps for children in Butajira. Camp Glow is becoming a Peace Corps wide event and we were lucky to do sort of a trial run during PST. We were given budgets and lesson topics to follow and were told to create a one and a half day camp. We incorporated lessons and games on HIV/AIDS, Water and Sanitation hygiene, Malaria, gender roles, and peer pressure. The point of camp was to give these kids the tools they need to be leaders and role models on the topics we taught. To make being a leader more appealing to the kids we created the theme of “Be Healthy. Be Heroes.” and had an awesome super hero theme. The planning was crazy and stressful but we pulled through in the end with an amazing program. I am going to toot my own horn and say my group definitely had the best camp.

The red group were my lovelies

The red group were my lovelies

Our Camp Glow kids

Our Camp Glow kids

May 2nd marked the end of PST with swearing in at the US embassy in Addis as an official Peace Corps Volunteers. This is the moment that we all worked so hard toward! I’d like to start off by saying that the US embassy is incredibly beautiful. It was like a little piece of heaven in the middle of one of Ethiopia. Of course, being from Portland my heaven involves lots of rain and there was no shortage of rain that day. During the actual ceremony and reception it poured. I felt horrible for the speakers because their tent started to leak on them… which probably made the ceremony go a little faster. The ceremony was actually quite nice. Our country director, Greg Engle, opened the ceremony and then our training manager, Tesfaye Ejigu, gave remarks. Following Tesfaye were three trainees who gave speeches in the language they learned. The U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, Patricia Haslach, also spoke. I would like to point out that I was incredibly honored to be in Madam Ambassador’s presence because we come from the same town in the states! After we received our certificates we were fed delicious finger foods and refreshments – PC was very smart to put volunteers (that’s me now!) at the end of the line because they knew we had just spent three months eating overwhelming amounts of injera.

Two of my favorite volunteers - Sue and Ernie

Two of my favorite volunteers – Sue and Ernie

My two other language teachers

My two other language teachers

Jeanie and I

Jeanie and I

My swearing in moment with my Peace Corps heads and the US Ethiopian Ambassador

My swearing in moment with my Peace Corps heads and the US Ethiopian Ambassador

My language group - Jeff, me, Jeanie, and our teacher Tekalyn

My language group – Jeff, me, Jeanie, and our teacher Tekalyn

So there you have it – the glorious events of my Pre-Service Training. Of course there are plenty of other experiences I’d like to talk about – shint bets, the dangers of food you can’t pronounce, cultural confusion fiascos – but I’ll save those for another post and keep the focus of this one on the important events that truly make up PST.

20 Do’s and Don’ts of PST

training

1. DO EMBRACE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION – JUST REMEMBER TO WEAR YOUR REQUIRED HELMET

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2. DON’T BE ASHAMED IF YOU NEED A LITTLE COMPANIONSHIP

Don't be ashamed if you need a little companionship

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3. DO BRING DUCT TAPE… FOR EVERYTHING

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4. DON’T JUDGE YOUR TOWN BY THE OUTSIDE

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5. DO EXPECT TO GET SICK FROM THE FOOD

Do expect to get sick from the local food... sometimes daily

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6. DON’T QUESTION THE SAFETY AND SECURITY TEAM WHEN THEY GIVE YOU THE MAP OF OFF LIMIT AREAS
(WHICH IS BASICALLY THE ENTIRE MAP)

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7. DO EXPECT TO HEAR EVERY AMERICAN STEREOTYPE TO EVER EXIST

Do expect to hear every American stereotype

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8. DON’T LOSE YOU PST SCHEDULE PACKET.

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9. DO FEEL YOU HAVE THE RIGHT REFUSE HUGS FROM STRANGERS (WHICH IS EVERYONE)

Do feel you have the right to refuse hugs from strangers (which is everyone)

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10. DON’T ADD SALT TO YOUR FOOD… YOUR HOST MOM ALREADY ADDED THE ENTIRE BOX

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11. DO LOCK YOUR HOST FAMILY ROOM AND LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES

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12. DON’T GO ON SITE VISIT WITHOUT A PREPARED SPEECH FOR WHEN EVERYONE IN TOWN ASKS HOW YOU WILL HELP THEM

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13. DO FIND THE CLOSEST AMERICAN MARKET

Do find the one American market

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14. DON’T LOG ONTO FACEBOOK DURING THOSE ROUGH DAYS OF TRAINING… YOU ARE SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR DISAPPOINTMENT

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15. DO REMEMBER YOU ARE THE ONE IN A NEW CULTURE

Do remember you are in another culture and things will be different

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16. DON’T LOSE IT WHEN SOMEONE REFUSES TO ACCEPT YOUR CHOICE OF RELIGION

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17. DO SMILE THE ENTIRE FIRST NIGHT AT YOUR HOST FAMILY’S  HOUSE… NO MATTER HOW AWKWARD IT IS
Do smile the entire time during your first night at your host family home

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18. DON’T SPEND ALL YOUR TRAINING ALLOWANCE ON BEER

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19. DO TAKE COMPLIMENTS FROM THE LOCALS EVEN IF THEY DON’T MAKE SENSE

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20. DON’T GET DOWN ON YOURSELF JUST BECAUSE THINGS AREN’T GOING AS PLANNED – EMBRACE THE CHALLENGES

Demystification.

demyst

My first couple of days in Ethiopia were spent safely behind the walls of a nicer than expected hotel in Addis Ababa. At the end of our first week all 63 of us were split into small groups and sent on a “demystification” to existing volunteers sites in order to get a feel of what we could experience over the next two years. My group consisted of three other girls – Tayler, Alonne, and Caitlin, and our mentor, Alyssa. We flew to Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia, and stayed with a married couple, Daniel and Lauren, Danielle, and Daniel couldn’t have been any more hospitable. We were given beds to sleep on and home cooked meals – I honestly expected to be sleeping on the hard, cold floor with a blanket thrown over me and eating only injera and gomen (cabbage). We had a hot shower (which I proudly didn’t use) and a western toilet. Along with the fancy schmancy modern convinces came three bedrooms, a hallway, an Ethiopian kitchen, and a living room as big as mine in the states. When I think of a volunteer living situation the D&D house is definitely not what I imagine. Not all volunteers live like this, though. Lauren lives on a someone else’s compound and has one room that serves as her living room, bedroom, and kitchen. Her shint bet (bathroom) is traditionally Ethiopian and is in a separate area from her room. Not as elaborate as D&D but still something she made her own and can call home. This is much more the common ground for volunteer living – basic and Ethiopian.Danielle (could we just discuss how cute it is they have matching names?). We shadowed a current health volunteer, Lauren, who lives and works in Adwa. This was our first real experience of Ethiopia – it was meant to show us a glimpse of volunteer life but I believe it was really to get us hyped up so we wouldn’t be scared off during the three months of training and contemplate going home.

Market Day

On our first day in town it was “market day”. I had heard about market days from reading various blogs and knew this was a big event. We walked to the market and I was immediately overwhelmed by the environment. We have outside markets back in the states but they don’t even compare to this. The crowds filled the streets – making it difficult to distinguish who was trying to sell you something and who wanted something from you. Being a ferenji (foreigner), all eyes were on us. Herds of children followed us as we scanned the fragrant spices and fresh vegetables. While the children were curious, grown adults grabbed our arms to ask for money. This was my first real experience being the center of attention in Ethiopia and I can tell you it encouraged me to seek out every possible way to fit in. Market day was clearly overwhelming. As the long weekend went on things slowed down a bit. We were still the center of attention but learned to respond to the unwanted gestures.  A couple days later we shadowed Lauren to a few places she works. We were given a tour of the health center Lauren works at. She explained that there will be times when no work is available, like her situation, and encouraged us to be proactive by getting to know the people in your building and finding a project that needs your skills. After the health office we visited the orphanage she works at. I was amazed at how children who have so little could be so happy.

Our first bajaj ride

Basically the entire experience of demystification was insanely positive. The current volunteers we met were so active and engaged with their community. It’s obvious that the work will be both challenging and rewarding. As soon as I heard I would be visiting Tigray I knew I was in for a treat. My boss from the states, Semhal, is from Tigray and had told me stories about growing up there. I was so excited to finally be able to put a picture to the stories. Luck must have been on my side though because upon leaving for the region I wrote Semhal to tell her where I’d be visiting and it just so happens I would be staying in the town her father is from, Adwa. Adwa is right next to Axum – where the ark of the covenant is believed to be. This is a major tourist area so Danielle, and Lauren took us to all the sites – the Ark of the Covenant, the obelisks, and Queen of Sheeba’s Bath. These were all on my list of things to see before I even departed for Ethiopia so I was thrilled to check these off my list within the first two weeks!

Caitlin, Alonee, Tayler, Me, Alyssa at our first Ethiopian toilet

Caitlin, Alonee, Tayler, Me, Alyssa at our first Ethiopian toilet

The Chapel of the Tablet - the secret hiding place of the ark

The Chapel of the Tablet – the secret hiding place of the ark

Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

Bell tower view

Bell tower view

Obelisks

Obelisks

 Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction.

Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction.

Tombs

Tombs

Queen of Sheeba Bath

Queen of Sheeba Bath

 

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If you have any topics or questions  you’d like me to cover before I leave or while in Ethiopia please leave let me know in the comments.

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Ferenji Warrior

Welcome

It’s been nearly three weeks since I’ve touched down in Ethiopia and I am still am trying to find the words to start my first blog entry…

“Hello from beautiful Ethiopia!”
“What have I done?”
“Two words – culture shock.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint an emotion to describe my experience – there are days when I open my eyes at 6 in the morning and immediately close them, imagining I’m in the comfort of my own bed in the states with another hour before a hot shower. On the other hand there are days when I look out the “bus” window at the brown, dry mountains to my right and the lush, green valley to my left and think of how lucky I am to be in Africa… I am in Africa, another thought that’s difficult to comprehend.

My first impressions of Ethiopia were far off from what I was expecting. I touched down in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, with 60+ other Peace Corps volunteers. Walking through the airport doors into the night I was overwhelmed by the smell of home – yes, the Addis airport air smells of trees and coffee (sadly, I can’t say that for the rest of the city). Driving to the hotel was an experience in itself… I’m not entirely sure Ethiopia has any traffic laws. Vehicles drive in any lane they please and don’t stop for pedestrians already halfway across the street.

Addis is unlike any other Ethiopian town. It’s fast moving and so are the people. It felt as if everyone was looking out for only themselves. We couldn’t walk more than a block without someone telling (not asking) us to give them money, trying to pick our pockets, or calling out “ferenji, ferenji!” (foreigner, foreigner). Not all people in the capital held this mentality but it’s still a shame so many do because the people of Ethiopia are generally very friendly and generous. Just in my three weeks here I have spent time in a few cities, finding the locals to be warm and refreshing. Hospitality does not fall short in Ethiopia. Like anywhere, you just have to take the bad with the good.

Peace Corps does a good job of keeping us on our toes. Our schedules are planned minute by minute, from sunrise to sunset. We have just three months of training to insure we’re ready to live and work for two years on our own. My days are filled with intense lessons on the language (Amharic), Peace Corps policies, development strategies, culture immersion, and health and agriculture topics. I often find my brain moving faster than the rest of my body. It’s a good thing Peace Corps works so hard to ensure we’re mentally and physically well. The medical team has done an excellent job of staying on top of any needs we may have.

It’d be an understatement to say I experienced culture shock. Coming into this experience I considered myself pretty knowledgeable of other cultures. After just a few days I felt extremely foolish that I thought I knew something about a culture I had never experienced. What has especially been difficult is how much culture differs between Ethiopian regions. What is common in the north may be rare in the south, much like America.

I am excited to embrace the challenges and rewards Peace Corps and Ethiopia will throw at me. If I have learned anything so far it has been to “expected the unexpected.” This experience has been far from what I imagined it would be. Things I thought I would dread I find rewarding. I constantly surprise myself with what I am capable of.being here has brought out a whole new set of traits I didn’t know I had in me. I can’t even imagine what this adventure has in store for me.

Here’s to the next 27 months of challenges, rewards, and self discovery.