28 August 2012

Back to Addis from Sodo

I have arrived back in Addis after an intense trip to the south. Though the roads are paved between here and Sodo, the going was still quite rough and we arrived after about 8 hours, which cost us about $12 each. I want to write about how beautiful the landscape in the south is, how green and lush the subsistence farms are, how interesting the houses and people look, but much more was just under the surface. Being that PM Meles passed away, the country is in the grip of mourning and for this they have had huge events everywhere. In Sodo, which is the capital of the Walaiyta region, the events were marked by the demonstrations of warriors draped in leopard skin or local colors of clothing, and thrusting spears or on horseback galloping through the streets.

The priest I traveled with is from a village in that area and he took me there. We drove for some time on the paved road, turned off on a heavily potholed dirt road, and then turned off that road into green fields. Eventually we came to the quiets of his village. I am not entirely ready to write about what we experienced there. The villages are full of malaria and very extreme poverty. But people are of course gracious, wanting to give, smiling and welcoming. I was a total anomaly and so everywhere we went children would scream out to me, adults would stare, point, mostly to smile and wave. I am not used to traveling in this way. The Brothers and Priests often put on street clothes when they leave their compounds to avoid attention. There is nothing I can do to avoid attention. I am taller than most people, and definitely look different. The south is densely populated and is where many of the lakes are (the Rift Valley).

I finally made contact with the Institute I am meant to work with here, but there are almost no staff here and I am not sure how much support they are actually willing to give outside of a desk and internet connection, which is very generous of course. I will continue to try to reach the remaining names I have in Addis and hope that I can gain permissions to enter the dam site. I am almost done with the first portion of my research having conducted interviews with more officials in the south. I met with the equivalent mayor, governor, 2 bishops, a university president, and regional manager of the large firm construction a dam there (the same firm that is constructing the dam I am looking to research).

The political state of the country is still uncertain. The public demonstrations for Meles' death are full of loud weeping and crying and large crowds of people are gathering everyday across the country to grieve. I will write more about this at some point. I am totally overwhelmed and need some time to digest what is happening around me. I have left the Brothers and moved in with an Ethiopian family: a mother and two kids. The mother works for the UN. I may have to leave Ethiopia, so I am trying to hurry up with completing my interviews before this happens. It is very nerve-wrecking to not understand what is happening here, but, I am not alone, no one really knows what to expect next. On top of the political stability uncertainty, the realities of death and disease in the countryside...I hope I can write about this eventually. One scene that is a bit funny is this:
I was brought to see a Catholic mission very far out in the rural area. This is the only thing happening out there as far as care for locals. There is a clinic staffed by Sisters, a school staffed by Brothers, and a parish priest. We arrived just as some program for the local kids let out, so there were a few hundred kids milling about in the churchyard. One young man starts to speak with me in English, politely asking where I am from and what I am doing in Ethiopia. He tells me about his schooling and his life. As this is happening, the hundred or so kids are crowded around us to listen to our conversation. They are packing in so close that the temperature perceptibly increased - and my attention moved from my conversation to the crowd around me and when I look at the kids they jump back and start laughing then push in close again. They were at once fascinated and frightened by this odd visitor speaking American English. They all wanted to shake my hand, which is standard in Ethiopia - the welcoming greeting. I shook dozens of hands before I could break free and go to the Sister's compound for coffee...

Now that I have an office, perhaps I will start posting photos so you can see the things I am describing. The Director of this Institute will not be back until next Monday, and the funeral stuff is happening all week, so it is not easy to move around the city. Today I was brought by one of the UN drivers, which is pretty strange because people think you are somebody inside the car and give way or salutes. The Institute is some distance from everything so I do not believe I will come very often, though it would be convenient for writing and communication if I could.

21 August 2012

Ethiopia's Prime Minister has passed away

This morning's news stated that the PM has died and the country is in mourning. Walking on the streets today it is quite solemn and no one is quite sure what will happen next. He was sick for some time.

So the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the Prime Minister, who has been the leader for over 20 years, pass away in the same week. I am not sure what effect this will have on my duration here. But the whole business makes me nervous - this is already a very fragile part of the world. I hope things remain calm and am planning to leave the capital for the south for a few days (through the weekend), just in case. For now, I am keeping my ears open for any changes or signs of something unstable and will get out if things disintegrate.

My research continues successfully - collecting one to two interviews per day. I think at this rate, I will be well positioned to do analysis before I leave the country and even have time for some tourism.

Yesterday I was feeling a bit low and lonely, as happens when you travel far away and have no contact with people you are used to hearing and seeing. I met with two Italians and together with one of the Ethiopian priests we went for coffee in the day and then an aperitif after dinner. We had a great laugh and it was so nice to have some silly company for the evening. The girl is quite young, named Beatrice. She was doing some volunteer work at a school in the south. Her father was involved with fundraising for the construction of the school. The man is in the process of adopting an Ethiopian boy, his wife stayed behind in the village to spend time with the boy before they are allowed to take him back to Italy next month. They were both in country for a month already and he is super excited about the new family. He was an absolute character, having an argument with a grate on the street, and joking with the priest, Father Ayele. This is the priest that helped me to get a room in the guest house when I first arrived. He has done some work with the US military and seems to really like working with Americans. I will travel with him to the south to see the school project this week.

Ethiopia continues to be an exciting place. I have no idea of the news outside as so many things are happening here. I will keep you updated. My hope is to find permissions to travel to the rural areas where I hope to speak with more people who live near to the river and who have been moved. My original plans to travel to Asosa, a town south of the river, have been postponed due to some violence in the area - not clear what is happening but many refugees are there from Sudan. I am keeping an ear to the ground to make sure that I do not end up in a war zone.

It would be nice to talk to someone from home. +251931312109

20 August 2012

Travel to Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile

Last time I wrote I was not feeling well, but it passed quickly and luckily did not turn into anything. I just slept  many hours. Although only one week and some days have passed since I arrived in Ethiopia, the US feels like a lifetime away. So much has happened and there is so much to process here. I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed and homesick, but that also passes.

The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church passed away last week. I am still not sure what happened, though he was in his seventies and had diabetes.

On Saturday morning, very early, I met with some friends and we traveled to Bahir Dar, the main city on the south end of Lake Tana. Emily, the woman from the Embassy, arranged everything for the trip through the Embassy. She picked me up at about 5am and our flight was supposed to leave the airport at 7:30. Because of weather - it was raining hard in Addis and foggy in Bahir Dar, our flight was delayed by maybe two hours. But once we had the clearance, we were off in a small twin prop plane. The flight took about 1 hour through the clouds. We descended and could see the lake and town spread out below us. The sun reflected off of saturated ground. The rainy season inundates everything, and drainage out of this soil does not appear to be very good. It is an astounding place. The color of the lake is brown, because it is the rainy season and erosion causes the water to muddy. I am told that if I were to come back in January, the lake would be blue. The truck ride from the airport to the hotel passed by a riot of people driving their animals to market. The sun was shining, and the whole place alive!

We stayed at a brand new hotel, right on the lake - Avante Blue Nile Resort. This Sheik Ala Moud (or something like this) is the owner and developer. He also owns the Sheraton and is perhaps the richest man in Africa. He owns gold mines, cement factories, the main bank (Dashan). The place is not officially open to the public yet, but it was arranged that we could spend the night, comped. The hotel is extremely nice and each one of us had our own suite - a room with a living space, balcony, and loft bed. I was so happy, and felt totally spoiled, to have a big comfy bed with down comforter and view of the lake! Within the first few moments of arriving, we saw two kingfishers, a big eagle with a fish it caught settle in a nearby tree, and many other colorful birds flitting about. This felt more like what I hoped Africa would be: sunshine, clear air, and the atmosphere peaceful. The place looks like paradise, in contrast to the city where it has been cold and raining most of this week (and I have been wearing practically everything I brought to stay warm!).

We were met by a man, Belachew, who arranged our travel to various places for the weekend. We were then picked up by a boat and taken out onto the lake! There are monasteries on islands in the lake and on the lake shores dating from the 14th century. We visited Zegu Peninsula and two monasteries there with floor to ceiling paintings and artifacts, like crowns and books written on leather parchment. One of the churches had a iron cross on top with 7 ostrich eggs adorning it. The churches themselves are circular. You enter barefoot from the outside through enormous wooden doors. The church is sort of a hallway around an inner circle that is fully decorated. We were not permitted inside. There is a separate entrance for women and men. Some of the paintings are stories about specific Ethiopian saints, stories which I had never heard before. Some of these saints are similar to the Catholic ones, some, like a cannibal who ate his own son and was finally vindicated through Mary, are very unfamiliar indeed. The paintings are very rich in color and have been redone over time. The original rooves were made of grass - thatched - and rain spoiled the original paintings, though there are pieces of these up on the walls. The paintings are done on canvas which is attached directly to the wall which is made of grasses. The rooves are now made of metal.

The compounds are active. Monks live there and grow gardens. People from the village visit and of course tourists come. We are in their offseason for tourists, because it is the rainy season, and the local people's only source of income is selling handicraft. There is a system of stalls set up along the pathway to the monasteries and people are very eager for you to have a look at what they are selling. They barter down to ridiculously low prices and it pained me to think of the hours spent making these things broken down into the prices they were offering. I bought a painting off of one artist who made his pigments from local flowers. The painting is made on goatskin.

We took the boat to the start of the Nile river, and there were tons of birds there. There are many migratory birds that come through this area and we saw flocks and flocks of them. I don't even know all of their names: hornbill, pelican, weavers, hammerheads, cranes, hawks, eagle, comorants, starlings (they are blue here), and a variety of other birds I hope to find out more about later. One bird flew overhead at one point in a brilliant flash of red. Its bright red wingspan was about 1 and 1/2 feet across. The trees on the peninsula are healthy and older, and the guidebook says that it is one of the last remaining forests in the area. One of our group even saw a monkey in the woods. But there are plenty of people taking the wood from this peninsula by boat. The children sell miniature versions of these papyrus boats with bundles of wood inside. The men use these papyrus boats to transport things and for fishing. They are made of papyrus, wrapped together, long like a canoe. I will upload pictures at some point.

After our boat trip, we went into the town to the market place. Saturday is market day so everyone from the surrounding area comes in to buy food, spices, you name it. The place was a ball of excitement, people were talking and walking and playing and laughing. The spices smelled amazing. We got out and walked around, much to the amusement and attention of the locals. Children followed us asking for their photos to be taken. We past through an area of chickens and eggs, water and oil canisters, clothes. All the colors are so bright here, I don't know if it is the sunlight, the elevation, or some combination. Reds and teal blues just pop. Everywhere we were driving, people were calling out to us. Sometimes in a friendly manner, sometimes obnoxious. We had some lunch and then headed out of town for the sunset. The road we took is lined with jacarandi trees, not currently in bloom, but draped over the road like a canopy. So we moved through this tunnel of green with the river to our right. There are sometimes hippos in the river, called gumanche, but none were around when we were there. We passed all manner of people coming and going places. The men typically wrapped in a local style of blanket. They use this blanket against the rain, the sun, for sleeping at night. It is the all purpose poncho. The colors of these blankets again, are so bright against the greens and browns in the landscape. Much of this region is cultivated for agriculture. There are flat lands that rise up into mesas and hillsides, all green during this rainy season. We were lucky to have two days of warm sun.

We drove to the top of one of these mesas where Emporer Haile Selassie had a palace, now not really used except for the occassional visit from the Prime Minister - who by the way is still missing in action and no one knows why - though it is guarded. We left the paved road and traveled along the very top of the mesa to the edge, which was full of grand trees and grasses. Some kids followed us and offered us bouquets of flowers. A few of the older boys gave out their email addresses hoping for copies of photos they took with us. We watched the big orange ball descend in the sky and clouds behind lit up like something unreal. The lake was below us as well as the city and the Nile River. I still cannot believe I was standing there. That evening we ate at the hotel while a giant thunderstorm raged outside.

Sunday we were off again, this time to the waterfall. This waterfall is at Tis Abey - Abey is the Ethiopian name for the Blue Nile River. We drove through several small villages. The houses here are mainly made of wood and mud with straw packed into the sides. I imagine this is great insulation for cold months and keeps the abode cool in the warmer months. Though someone did mention that many of the dwellings for people in the countryside are very very dark - no windows. This area is mainly agricultural, as I mentioned, and so there were many young men out in the fields with a herd of cows, or driving donkeys along the road. Church services were also being held and as we passed we could see the women standing outside with white head coverings and umbrellas to sheild them from the sun. Many people, both men and women, walk around with umbrellas here. Many men also carry sticks or canes.

We arrived at the waterfall place and hiked down along a very rocky path. I was consistently bringing up the rear. I blame it on a combination of altitude and old age. :)

The first bridge we crossed was built by the Portuguese sometime in the 1800s. It is stone and still stands as a main pathway for locals. The river divides two states. There were herds of goats and sheep here and we passed an ancient woman spinning wool, though it may have been cotton. When we hiked up and around to the first view of the falls, I was blown away. The place is enormous and the spray and sound hits you before you actually see the water. The falls again were brown and we were soon covered in the spray and film of soil. Our guides brought us down close to the view and we were soaked. We had local boys holding our hands and arms to keep us steady through the thick mud. Then we crossed over a crazy suspension bridge (only for pedestrians) that allowed us access to the waterfall itself. You could feel the power of the water as you stood alongside and looked straight down. This is the beginning of a great river - the Blue Nile contributes most of the Nile's water. Though the local boys were telling me that the waterfall is not what it used to be. There is a diversion and dam that was constructed some 20 or 30 years ago that takes water out of this main stem and diverts it into the river past the falls. They showed me the extent of dry land that is now used for cultivating maize and chat where the river used to cover. I was struck by the distance and could only imagine what the waterfall had been before the diversion. No wonder I was reading that the falls were not as impressive as they had been some time ago. I, and my companions, still found the experience very moving and do not know the difference.

On the way back I felt a bit overwhelmed by the kids aggressively selling scarves and baskets. Our guide brought me down a sidepath to show me veins of copper and copper salts. I asked if anyone ever collects this and he said that it is washed to Egypt through the river. This concept again of Ethiopia's riches being taken downstream...

We had a lovely traditional lunch on the lakeshore and finished our time looking again for hippoes and ending up at the Amharic People's monument - a large well maintained park along the river. We watched as scores upon scores of birds moved up the river toward the lake for sunset. We also watched another sunset and a big storm rolling in off of the lake. I listened as Belachew told me about the conditions in Ethiopia of all the development we could see around us. There is endless amount of construction going on here - not only in Addis, but in Bahir Dar as well. It is not clear to me why this is happening now, but it seems that it is not all that clear to local people either. Though there are dams and a national grid, people are still so reliant on burning wood that there are very aggressive tree planting schemes all over the country. One of our guides told me that the government was engaged in a conservation effort in this region because of the Renaissance Dam - to reduce the silt load.

On the way back in the airport I met two women from USAID who were also traveling to this place for the weekend. One of them works in Addis, the other in Khartoum, Sudan and her post before that was in Cairo, and yes she lived there through the revolution. She told me how it was in those days. People got together at home for big dinners and gathered together to keep safe and informed. The local men took to guarding the neighborhoods in the absence of the police.

17 August 2012

Research & visit to orphanage

My research is well underway, today I completed my fifth interview. Today I am not feeling well, which was bound to happen sooner or later. I am very dizzy, though I have no fever or stomach problem. Just need to sleep a lot. Tomorrow morning I leave very early for a trip to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile constitutes more than 80% of the Nile's waters. It is also the river I am concerned with in my research.

Still continue to explore the city and the surrounds with the assistance of the priest and Sister Carol. In fact yesterday after a lunch meeting I had for an interview, I went with Sister Carol to a place one hour away by bus, which cost something like 20 cents to take, we went to the seminary where she teaches and to the Mother Teresa orphanage for kids with HIV/AIDS. I had read about this orphanage and had, in fact, brought gifts for the kids with me from the States.

I saw my first Ethiopian wildlife at the seminary - about 4 land tortoises. They were chomping away at the grass. The seminary also has a number of cows and sheep. I did not immediately recognize the sheep here as sheep, because they are raised for their meat instead of their wool, so they look completely different. In fact, from behind they almost look like dogs with a long tail. We made our way to the orphanage and were joined by a number of really tiny - maybe 2 to 3 year old - children. one of which obviously had the hairlip operation. They were dressed in rags and who knows where the parents were. The street kids here are so friendly and warm - they reach out to hold your hand and appear to want to walk with you and talk to you - though of course there are the children who are begging for money or food. These kids yesterday were just in want of some attention.

The orphanage is an amazing facility! The kids are all very healthy looking, thanks to the anti-retroviral drugs they are receiving. The drugs are available on this temporary grant to Ethiopia which will, unfortunately, expire next year. The Sisters there are not sure what will happen past this time. The drugs must be administered 2 times per day. They have a full medical staff, many volunteers from both Ethiopia and abroad, and the compound is huge. They also have a brand new school that was built, not only to serve the orphans, but also the children of the nearby communities. The girls who were showing us this place were very proud of the school and of the compound. There are only 7 Sisters working with over 200 children, but this number is down from what it used to be due to changes in government policy. Now no children can just be dropped off to the Sisters, they must be brought to the police if they are. The trouble is that sometimes parents just drop off the kids and there is no record of names, age, or anything.

There is a birthday for the kids coming up and I hope to attend. They have a day where they celebrate all of their collective birthdays. Sister Carol and I stayed some time and we played with the kids a bit. They are a great bunch of happy outgoing personalities. I was totally encouraged to see how their skin, hair, and overall physical bodies looked so healthy. It is amazing what the AIDS drugs can do for the disease, and some of teh kids born with the disease can actually overcome it with treatment.

We also visited the clinic where some of teh kids are suffering from pneumonia and TB. Even this space though was light, brightly colored, full of toys and paintings, and totally clean. The whole facility, and the kids, is so well organized and clean. When I asked them what they need, they said more drugs, and things to keep the kids occupied during the rainyseason, when so much time must be spent indoors.

The older children make things to sell and raise money for the facility. They weave silk, cotton, and wool scarves, make other sewn or woven things, and jewelry from beads. The Sisters were very calm and happy to welcome us into the compound. I wished that I had brought a camera to photograph the buildings, but it turns out that they prefer you do not photograph for the privacy of the kids.

A terrible rainstorm rolled through and it completely flooded out Addis. We took one of the blue and white minivan taxis back to town. I am beginning to become more comfortable with navigating these things. I am thankful to have more to my experience here in Ethiopia than just research on my topic, but am mindful to keep on task with it. I hope to collect about 50 interviews before leaving. I am well on the way, and have many more phone numbers to call and ask for people to participate. I am excited to get out to the actual field site to interview, though now being the rainy season, the area is a bit of a mess, so I am waiting some weeks and will pass these in Addis. I intend to find a language teacher next week and will also have to find a new place to live as my two weeks with the Brothers will be up.

Father Arega, one of the priests staying here, is leaving tomorrow, but has been very helpful in walking me around the neighborhood to show me different parts of downtown. Tomorrow is Eid and there will be a huge celebration here, though I will miss it as I am catching an early flight.

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.

13 August 2012

First days in Addis Ababa

I love Addis Ababa.

My arrival on Friday ushered into this new scene through the filter of American friends and seen the official and expat side of life here - staying at a fancy hotel, eating at fancy restaurants, and seeing how the other half live - was short-lived. I spent Saturday morning with my friends as they waited to leave for the airport, and then stayed on to drink coffee and use the internet for another hour after they departed. During this time I watched as groups of Chinese, Americans, and Europeans gathered in the lobby, met with humbly dressed Ethiopians and headed out. I approached one American man who was speaking to two very interesting looking young men who looked very out of place in the hotel lobby. He was going out to the rural areas with them as guides, something to do with African animals, though I did not ask the details. I heard the New York accent and started up a conversation, and he was delighted to speak and invited me for coffee on another day to talk research. He is a professor at Rutgers of African studies and has been working in Ethiopia for many many years. His two guides were eager to make my acquiantense, but they were fast off and I felt it was high time for me to be off as well, so I headed out.

Against the advice of the Americans, I left the Sheraton on foot to join the teaming masses of Ethiopians who travel this way throughout the city all times of day and night. I am amazed at the diversity here, there are so many different ethnic groups, clothing styles, and fashions. I thought that people here would be in general as were described to me as Ethiopian - small boned and light skinned. But that is really only a few ethnic groups here. Also, due to the presence of the African Union Headquarters and the various multitude of other international organizations, there are plenty of different Africans here, and Chinese and Europeans and Americans. There are Muslims who are taller, slim, light-skinned and draped in chequered headscarves and long white robes. I walked next to a man today who was leading a goat on a rope in the market-place. There are women with face tattooes, along their cheeks, jaw, or on the forehead, with petite builds and colorful skirts and headscarves. Full-figured women with braids and jeans and sneakers. Disfigured beggars missing limbs, hair, skin, teeth, eyes. Children running and playing in tatters and smiles. Tall, dark-skinned men in business suites. Beautiful slender women in high-heeled shoes, western clothes, and long soft hair. Ragged men in ragged clothes carrying wooden staffs and barefoot. Boys herding goats, cows grazing at the roadside, dogs running around in packs, mangy looking cats loitering by doorways or on rooftops, groups of sheep and small donkeys...

On my initial walk I started to get hot, uncomfortable, and a bit lost. I also attracted a flock of children and would loose them at a street crossing, only to gain a new group of these small eager faces along the next street. A taxi driver hailed me. I negotiated a reasonable price, jumped in the front, and carried on a lively conversation while we dodged cars, minivans, and trucks toward the Holy Savior church compound. I left him with his fare and an apple from a bag of fruit that Peter, one of the Americans I was just with, so generously offered to me to take to the Friars. He was really happy about this. I found out later that one apple can cost upwards of $3 in the store and that many Ethiopians make less than $6 in a day. This was more than what I paid for the cab ride!

Once I reached Holy Savior I met a woman half of my size and (from her life-story) about twice my age. Sister Carol is from Massachusettes and has been working in Ethiopia for 10 years. She had been at the compound all day for a lecture on Saint Clare. It turns out that this compound is in fact a center for international Catholic activities and there are Italian and English language masses held consistently. She was heading home, but offered to show me where some things are out on the main road. She asked if I wanted to walk with her, and I immediately said yes, wanting to again face the throng and do a better job of it this time. I put my bag up in my room and we set off together. As soon as we stepped out of the compound onto the street we were in it. It feels like 5th Avenue at rush hour. We picked our way along the broken sidewalk and into the smiling faces of the people. People are doing all manner of living out on the street - selling things, barking their wares, begging, laughing, chatting, walking, strolling, drinking coffee, sitting, relieving themselves, crying, calling out of cars or buses, holding hands. The roads themselves are congested with cars, buses, minivans, and SUVs all burping thick exhaust and driving chaotically, and you have to be careful when crossing.

Sister Carol explained that she teaches English and in fact entered the Medical Mission Sisters to work abroad. She lives with Sisters who are Ethiopian and either doctors or nurses or trained to work social services. We made our way up Churchill Street, a main artery in the city, and as we travelled north, we also traveled up and I could feel the 8,500 feet elevation in my lungs. There is a constant presence of people speaking or calling in Amharic to one another, a very sing-song language. Sister Carol showed me where the post office is, where we could not enter because I had my camera on me, where the local grocery store is with simple restaurant attached, the strip of tourist shops where we saw a handful of young European backpackers examining their recent purchases. The shopkeepers beckoned to us, but we just smiled and nodded and continued on. Things for sale include woven rugs, woven baskets, carved wooden things, woven animals, scarves. The colors all around us on the street are so bright - women with bright pink headscarves and blue skirts, men in kelly green shirts and yellow pants.

We made our way in this manner, Sister Carol showing me landmarks and useful places along with telling me about her life until we turned off of the main drag to head to her compound. The Mission is located in a neighborhood that could be considered a slum. The road is mud and full of holes of water, the houses made of corrugated iron scraps and cookfires burned out the front. I found the place absolutely charming. The road began with a bunch of locally run shops in hovels, bread makers, beverage sellers, the sister even pointed out bundles of chat - a drug used in this part of the world as a stimulant. Muslims and Christians have their shops right next to each other. Fresh bread sells for about $0.80 a loaf. We stopped at one shop that makes their own yogurt that Sister Carol loves. They also sold juice imported from Egypt. I bought a box of mango juice and the shopkeeper threw in a free bottle of guava juice as a gift. I remember this feeling - being in a place where people have so little and still want to give.

We then turned down another road and passed by families out in front of their houses chatting amiably, children playing together, dogs running about with toys or bones, people gathered together at the communal water taps to fill jerry cans. There were plenty of trees and flowers and greenery. This neighborhood is beautiful and charming and being here gave me the impression more of being in a village rather than a bustling city. People greeted the Sister with smiles and affection. We even passed by a row of small scale manufacturing where metal and wooden furniture were being assembled. You could smell the industry and see people working in the shops as they are open to the street.

Sister Carol took it upon herself to ring several people when we got to her place. She had listened intently to my research objectives and wanted to put me in touch with some potential interviewees. Through these phone calls, she secured me a place to live after two weeks with the Friars with one of her friends who is a nurse for the UN. She also decided to call on the Comboni Missionaries in Addis as I had stated that I had been in touch with their superior in the States. The man that answered the phone was Father Sixtus. After a moment of speaking Sister Carol explained why she was calling. Then she said, "She is sitting right here with me," and handed me the phone.
"Hello?" "Yes, Jennifer, this is Father Sixtus, I sent you an email two months ago!" (soft Italian accent) "I am so sorry, I never received it! What did it say?" "Oh, it was a very detailed-ah-email. I can resend it. I would like to meet." "Of course, when and where? I am staying with the Friars at Holy Savior Church downtown." "I will be there tomorrow for the Italian mass, we can meet after." I agreed. I asked Sister Carol how I would recognize him. She smiled and said I would know which man he is.

We then sat and had coffee and spoke with one of the other sisters in the house. She works with trafficked women and children in social services. She asked me why so many parents come to adopt in Ethiopia from the USA and Europe. I told her that I wasn't sure, but that it could be many reasons to include infertility rates and the difficult red-tape in America. She said that there are more than 60,000 homeless children in the street of Addis Ababa. I had seen so many on the walks that day and they had flocked me, greeted me in English, pleaded with their eyes and hands, and ran away laughing or disappointed. I was told later by the Friars that there are less now than there used to be. But there is also an increased steady stream of trafficked children out to other parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. The Sister raised her eyes from her coffee cup to mine and asked me why I thought the children were being taken. I didn't want to guess.

The day was getting on. Because we are just north of the Equator, there are about 12 hours of daylight, and the same of night. It isn't very safe for a foreigner to be out on the streets alone after dark, so Sister Carol said we should go. She would walk me back to the main road and I would travel the two miles back to the compound. Along the way some Ethiopian men and boys called to me or greeted me, but nothing aggressive or insulting, quite to the contrary. Typical city stuff.

I arrived back in time to have dinner with the Friars. As soon as the sun sets the temperature drops and I am wearing layers, a scarf, my coat...These friars are Ethiopian Capuchin Franciscans and they wear the long brown robes and white roped belts. This is their central house in the country, so all of their Brothers are traveling through here on their way to somewhere else. I have had many lively and interesting discussions about all corners of Ethiopia. And about the Olympics. They observe a bit of the Eastern rite, so they are on a fast now. This suites me well as we were served amazing Ethiopian vegetarian food with fresh injera. I gave the head Father the bag of fruit from Peter. He totally lit up. And so did the other Friars. There was enough fruit to go around.

Things are moving quickly since I came to the country. My research has already started, but this is for another day. I am in very good company and am really happy to have made this connection to the Catholic community. They have explained that though there are only about 600,000 Catholics in Ethiopia, they are by far the most active mission groups living with Ethiopians and helping with the dire situations in the rural communities, and even in the cities. There are mission houses of various Orders all over the country. And these people are giving and concerned, and very wired into the network of many things happening here. I am super thankful to have met them and have the chance to live with the Friars for these two weeks. I feel very good here.

11 August 2012

Arrival in Ethiopia

Landed safely and without much incident in Ethiopia. The place is pretty amazing - so much going on and a really great energy. Coincidentally, a friend of mine was arriving in the Addis Ababa airport the same morning as I, only one hour later, and staying one night before heading to Sudan. He is here on work and was generous enough to share his room at the Sheraton Hotel Addis; reputed to be the nicest hotel in all of Africa. It is pretty darn nice, to be sure! Being in my own smooshy comfy bed and quiet room after the overnight flight was a great way to set down calmly in the new, very different, surroundings. We took two naps yesterday, which broke the day up into what felt more like four days...and my perception is one of someone with disrupted internal rhythms and a bit of culture shock.

I was ready to leave Germany. I found myself getting tired of the predictable, privileged, and beautiful surrounds of Europe, the malaise that manifests in the minds and hearts of Western mentality - the dissatisfaction that causes depression and longing. Really we have so much and should be happy and appreciative every day for the amazing world in which we live, not to be distracted about what we do not have, but more concentrated on the opportunities and amazing things to which we have access. I felt the urge to put myself in the space of people who have less, much less, but still smile. And so far, this has only been experienced peripherally as we were whisked from the airport to the hotel, and subsequently driven, bouncing around the city's potholed streets in a diplomatic vehicle to different restaurants and neighborhoods. The Sheraton is a bubble for visiting diplomats, sheiks, princes, charity workers, expectant parents of adopted children, airline crews, business persons, academics, and various high-class celebrities and individuals. I feel a bit silly in these surroundings, but also appreciative of the opportunity to see how this half lives and acts in Ethiopia. Cell phones, laptops, overpriced drinks, Cuban cigars, stylish clothes, business meetings, and the Olympics on the big screen. We all cheered for the Ethiopian Olympians last night in the bar. Perhaps it is just good to know this facility is here in the case that I get ill and need a place to rest up.

I watched in amusement (and slight horror) last night as a locally well-known American danced by himself on the dancefloor in this strange jolty, showman performance to the exceptional Atlanta-based entertainment. The conversations last night were typical of the ex-patriot community, as we were told stories about things that ranged from hilarity to absolutely devastating. I have experienced with these types of tales in other places, so nothing shocking, but I did find myself tearing up a few times at the tragedy, the horror. I excused myself and spoke with one of the singers in the band to know more about what they were doing here. He said they stay for 3 months, get put up in a suite, all expenses paid. This is his 8th time around and he loves it.

I was able to make contact with a local Catholic Parish, with the help of my home church in Washington, DC (thank you Msgr Pope and Father Lazarus!). They've allowed me to rent a room in their guest house for two weeks. This will give me a safe spot to get oriented in the city and find a more long-term living situation. I intend to get acquainted with the offices of the International Watershed Management Institute (IWMI), my hosts, on Monday. 

08 August 2012

Pause in Germany

Have spent a chill week in Germany, catching up with old friends and relaxing. Soaked in the thermal, healing waters of Baden Baden and cruised the middle Rhine River. Water is central to both these destinations and I was happy to note the theme.

Nothing seems more luxurious than bathing, and in the case of Baden Baden, the location was used from the Roman times for just that. For two days I swam and soaked in mineral filled waters of varying temperatures, inhaled perfumed saturated air in the saunas, and by the end of it, developed a cold. Before the illness inflamed my sinuses and caused my eyes to run, we strolled the city and I noted that there are running fountains on many streets and a small river cascades through the center of the town. The water is a central reason for tourists to visit the town.

In the case of the Rhine River, the water serves not only to draw in tourist money, but is finely tuned to serve as a channel of transportation for all manner of things. We stayed in a hotel room overlooking the river and watched as barges traveling low in the water full of petroleum products, john deer tractors, cargo containers, and cars moved slowly up river. These same barges traveled, with flags whipping brightly, back down river with the current much quicker, much higher in the water as they'd unloaded their bounty somewhere offscreen.

Trains moved along the river, on either side. Freight trains flew through one set of tracks, passenger trains on the other. And roads flanked the train tracks, allowing an endless artery of traffic on both sides of the river. Bridges were few and far between, some having been bombed away during World War II and never rebuilt. A ferry system took passengers, cars, and big trucks across the banks for a small fee. Birds of all different types move up and down the river in flocks, or solo. Some are fishing birds, other small and delicate birds must eat the huge amount of insects otherwise attracted to the lights of the hotels and restaurants. Spiders are also plentiful, feasting on the flying prey that swarm in the night. All of this activity is happening at once.

The sound of the barges, trains, and cars making a constant hum that sometimes drowns out the pleasant sound of the rushing waters. I thought about this system, made possible through dams and locks, and channelization. The river has been harnessed to work for human need and want. No doubt there are floods, but the water does not do enough damage to deter this aggressive parade of goods and humans whisked along this highway of convenience. I myself took part in this parade on a riverboat for the day. Our destination was general, we traveled upriver, got out in a small pretty town, hiked to a castle and had a meal on the terrace. I thought as I choked on someone's cigarillo smoke and took in all that was before me from that terrace, that this must be what is desirable - to tame a river to serve a larger human system of economic importance - and to finely tune that river system to move things as quickly and easily as possible. Evident all over the southwestern part of Germany is industry, production, and a healthy economy - despite what has been happening with the global economic markets. The scenery along the Rhine is beautiful, the environment tame. This may be the result of development projects 50-60 years later. I think forward to Ethiopia and wonder how that landscape will differ, how that economy plays out on the ground, and if development projects today will yield similar results 50-60 years from now.