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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.