14 August 2012

Research begins

Sunday came and with it my scheduled meeting with Father Sixtus. I spoke with an Ethiopian man as I waited for him where the priests come in and out of the church. The Ethiopian man said something about time and I realized he referred to 6am as 12pm, something Sister Carol had warned me about the day before - Ethiopians have two different time systems, one is the Western version, the other the Ethiopian or Amharic version. I asked the man about this and he laughed and said he forgot for a moment. I am not entirely sure why there is this shift of 6 hours in the Ethiopian system, but it seems to make some sense based on the equal hours of day and night.

Father Sixtus came down the circular stairway in street clothes and greeted me warmly. He invited me to lunch at his compound and I agreed. We got into his truck along with Father Dominic, an elderly but very spry Italian priest who hopped in the back. Father Dominic has been working in Ethiopia since 1964 and though he is in Addis for medical reasons, continues to work in the rural areas near to the Eritrean border. It took us some time to leave Holy Savior compound because Father Sixtus was beseiged with people wanting to discuss this and that with him. His Amharic sounds perfect, no trace of an accent, the words as rhythmic as the Ethiopians I heard around me. During this time I read through the email that the Father had printed out for me. The one he had sent to me in June and had misrouted to my spam folder. It was full of useful information for my entry into Ethiopia and travel out to the dam site region.

We drove through the chaotic streets a few miles to the Comboni provincial compound and there I met with more elderly priests from Ethiopia and Mexico. We sat down to a pasta lunch and then I listened as the Fathers explained the complications surrounding access to the rural areas north of the Blue Nile River. The area is remote, the road is not paved past a certain point, and the destination is about 700 kilometers from Addis. The Fathers recommend that I take public transportation, but that this will take me 2 days of travel to reach the areas. There are Comboni Mission ho uses along the road that are prepared to host me for short periods while I am traveling out there. The Fathers suggested that I try to connect with the engineering company to travel with them after a certain point. That they have vehicles constantly coming and going and are made for the roads. I listened and scooped parmasiana cheese, my spoon avoiding the creepy crawlies running in the bowl, onto my noodles and Father Sixtus poured me a glass of Sangiovani wine. One young Ethiopian priest entered the room and said he had just returned from this area recently. As he started to explain he had to leave again abruptly - it seems the religious are always running about, meeting with people and very busy. He came back some time later and explained logistics. I must apply for a letter of permission while I am here in Addis Ababa from the right authorities. This will take some work and I plan to get this underway as soon as possible. Because it is the rainy season, there is some flooding. More details that I wont get into included some people I should try to find in town and places I should look for them.

The Fathers told me some stories about their time in Ethiopia. Said that not one of them had ever taken malaria medicine, but not one of them had ever contracted malaria. Father Dominic suffered and recovered from a bout of typhus. We spoke of the agricultural system in Ethiopia, the investment interests in sesame and sugar cane production, ground nuts, and various types of fruit. We shared a huge mango - it was bigger than my head. We spoke of the Christian stories about Ethiopia - the arc of the covenant, the origins of Christian faith to Ethiopia, the difference with the Orthodox church to the Catholic church and how for many Ethiopian people, these blend. Rumors of Eritreans coming over the border near the dam with intent to sabbotage and being stopped by the Ethiopian security forces in the forest. The area of the Gumoz people along the Blue Nile river and the fertility of this land. They also explained what economic things are happening in this area and how the dam will help. I have not met an Ethiopian yet who does not support the idea of the dam. I read in the paper that the dam is part of a 5 year plan to improve the power situation in Ethiopia to bring the hydropower generation 10,000 MW. The English language paper also carried an article about testing new power lines that will transmit power to Sudan. This is from a project funded by the World Bank.

After a few hours with the priests, Father Sixtus spirited me away again in the truck. Again he was approached and we crawled along in the truck, with the window open, as an Ethiopian man spoke with him at length. The Father drove me back a longer route to show me some more neighborhoods - to point out the area that Sister Carol's friend lives in and I may go to live after living with the friars, and to show me where to go to get my SIM card and an Ethiopian phone number. One strange thing that happened was that as we came out of his compound to a place called Mexico Square, a roundabout with a huge greenspace in the center, I saw that there is a huge Almec head in the center, the same Almec head I had gone back to the Peabody Museum in New Haven, CT to see just before I left the States. The significance of this head is how it captured my imagination as a child, my father often bringing me to the museum. It used to be at the very entrance and was lit up in such a way as to be mysterious. Out of all the known heads, there are about 17 different ones I believe, this one in the square in Ethiopia is the same one that sits in the museum in New Haven. I believe they are both reproductions...I remember learning that this head was confusing for researchers because the physical features were reminiscent more of an African face than an AmerIndian face.

Armed with new information I returned to the compound and transcribed my notes into the computer. I joined the Friars for dinner and asked if one of them, Father Arega, would help me to purchase a SIM card the following day. We made a plan to meet in the afternoon and discussed the Olympics. The Friars are all tall, healthy looking, darker-skinned, mostly young men from the South. There are two older Italian Brothers. Their perfect teeth and healthy faces strike me as quite different from most of the less healthy looking people on the street. The Order provides them with about 15 years of education including theology, psychology, and philosophy.

The food we eat together is all prepared in the large kitchen by an Ethiopian staff and is well balanced. Dinner consists of injera, the typical Ethiopian bread that comes flat and rolled up. You tear it apart, place it in layers in your bowl, and scoop food on top of it. The food we've been eating is all vegetarian for this fasting period. Lentils, peas, potatoes, collard greens, cabbage, carrots. The lentils and peas are prepared in a thick green or brown sauce. The potatoes are in a red sauce that is spicy. This is all delicious. Last night we also had a vegetable soup that Father Dejenny assured me with intent eyes looking over his glasses, that I would love. I did. On Sunday we also had a fish dish. The local sparkling water Ambo is served along with Tej, the Ethiopian wine, and St. George, the local Ethiopian beer. After dinner the Friars have either a sliced up tomato, banana, or orange. There is just enough for everyone it seems. Meals last no more than one half hour and the system for clean-up is efficient and team oriented as I remember the Sisters to be in my meals with them. The Friars pray morning and evening prayer together here and I am told that in the provinces they also have midday prayer together. It is a very lively and happy community.

Father Arega and I spent the afternoon together yesterday. As I suspected, getting a SIM card would be a long process, but I keep telling myself that if I can get one or two things done per day here, I am successful. In fact the location of the phone store had moved to a place 2km from where it was previously - where Father Sixtus had referred me. I wonder if I would have found it without Father Arega! The place was very near to a market area and we were in the current of humanity coming and going selling and buying. Another prominent feature on the streets of Addis are the shoe shiners. Because the sidewalks are a bit wrecked and muddy, people's shoes get a bit wrecked too. Dozens upon dozens of young men have little kits of rags, polish, and soap to clean people's shoes. Some people even have white shoes kept nice by this service. There is a steady stream of customers and it looks funny seeing all these people sitting down facing out to the road side by side.

We entered the phone store. Men in light blue uniforms guard the door and pat down all the men who enter, not the women. We entered a large room with about 50 people waiting on benches in a horseshoe. Since we were only purchasing a SIM card, not a phone, etc. we were ushered upstairs to a young man behind a desk. It turns out that you need photos of yourself for more official processes here and copies of your passport. It is not clear what they do with the photos, but I was told it is a left-over thing from the days of communism. We had to go find a photocopy and photo processing place. The photocopy was easy. Just around the corner we found a women in one of these small shack-like shops. She stayed there in a room with a super old photocopy machine. We paid her the equivalent of a few cents for a copy of my passport info page and visa page. The photos were not as easy. We entered a confusing building which turned out to be more like a mall, small areas divided up into various types of shops. The people at the photo processing place were on lunch and would not be back for 1/2 hour. We went down the road to another shop. These folks were open, but the entire process would also take 1/2 hour. We both laughed and said that it looks like in either case we would have to wait. I went in the back to a small stool before a large backdrop with two huge umbrella'd flashes and the photographer arranged my head this way and that before snapping my mug - absolutely no smiling. :)

We purchased extra photos in the case that I will need them for other things and headed back toward the phone store. In this area sometimes you walk on the sidewalks, but where they are choked with sellers and people, you walk on the street, which is equally as choked with cars and the blue and white minivans that operate to move people all over town. The minivans sit idle until they fill up, and they are overfull - improvised milk carton seats, people on the edge of worn out benches, totally smooshed together, the copilot calling out the name of the destination leaning his entire body out of the passenger window. Back in the phone store I paid about $3 for a SIM card which carries with it an Ethiopian phone number which I put into my old European phone - one that I had from the time I lived in Macedonia about 10 years ago. I even still have the phone numbers of my friends at that time in there. It works perfectly. Another $5 and I have credits for texting and calling people. A text costs like 2 cents and it costs nothing to receive texts or calls, even from abroad. Such a better and more efficient phone system then we have in the States.

On the way back we drank tea in a cafe at the top of one of these mall-type buildings and Father Arega told me about Ethiopian political history and culture a bit, and about Ethiopian hair. The restaurant looked out over the city, played Ethiopian tunes, and was packed with young Ethiopians eating, drinking, and chatting. I told him of how Americans know Ethiopia because of the famines - quite unbelievable in our present surroundings. Father Arega is one year older than me, has a very peaceful manner and a serious but kind face, and is quick to smile. He is in Addis for a course, but will leave back to his province within the week. He studied in Cameroon for four years and said that even there, people had misconceptions about Ethiopians from the time and press of the famine. He said that he arrived in Cameroon with another Brother who was a bit fat, and the people there were shocked. They also thought that Ethiopians all live in mud huts and are quite primitive. He explained how this famine was centered in the north, in a part of the country that still experiences problems because of drought and extreme weather that make crops fail. He is disappointed that people equate one event to the entirety of Ethiopia and do not know that the country is as diverse and complicated as it is. There are places where people do live more primitively, but this is not the whole story of Ethiopia. He then went on to tell me about the coffee ceremony in the rural areas, and the importance it plays in the social fabric.

Ethiopia has been independent, never having been colonized (but was occupied by the Italians during the inter-war period - Father Sixtus was telling me about this in relation to how Italians are received today in Ethiopia), but has gone through some serious changes over the last few decades. The Emporer Haile Selassie had died by the time F. Arega was born, and so he was born into the transition period. Communist leaders took over the country from the Emporer in 1974ish and had control until 1991. Under the Emporer there were slaves and a futile agricultural system. Under the Communists, this system was abolished and more equality of people was introduced. In 1991 the rebels at that time took over the government and they continue to have power to present. The Party wins by democratic election, but then they decide who is Prime Minister. The Prime Minister at present is MIA it seems, though the people are not being given details. Something about his health, perhaps he is in Belgium getting treatment, but he was not present at some recent meeting with the African Union. This has been going on a month, but aside from Sister Carol, no one has voiced any real concern in our conversations. This same guy has been in power for over the last 20 years.

This morning I had breakfast with a large group of Spanish who are here to volunteer at a school just south of Addis. They are quite excited about the journey and the experience. The weather is a bit drab and cold in this rainy period. I am bundled up in sweater, scarf, and hat as I write this. This afternoon I will make a trip up to Addis Ababa University in search of some professors and perhaps try to get out to the Institute as I have not heard back from them and the Director is out of the country until September.