14 September 2012

New Year in Addis

Ethiopian New Year is on September 11th. Leading up to the New Year celebration the mood started to change in Addis. I realized that since I arrived the country has been in mourning. First for the Patriarch, and then for the Prime Minister. This shift in people's spirits was totally uplifting. The radio started playing the upbeat Ethiopian folk music, people were busy buying new clothes or animals at the informal markets around the city, there were more smiles and laughter. It is good to see the Ethiopian people moving past this difficult time. There is still much regret about losing their leader, but you can see things changing. Simultaneously, the weather is changing. We are moving out of the monsoon rainy season into summer and the dry season.

I was living with an Ethiopian family for two weeks, but decided that I needed more time to work on my research than was afforded me at the house. The six hours of tutoring a week agreement changed to many more hours and I could not commit to this given the speed of my data collection and the brief amount of time I am actually in Ethiopia. I have moved again in with a religious community, the Christian Brothers. They teach at and run most of the Catholic schools throughout the country. This time to a wonderful neighborhood of families and activities - it is technically a slum, but this word has such negative connotation. The neighborhood is called Kechene. The houses are made of corrugated iron and there are communal water taps, much like Sister Carol's neighborhood. But there are women washing clothes, dogs and children running around, and constant activity and movement along the street. I love it. People walk up along side me to chat or seek shelter under my umbrella if it is raining, and kids come up to shake my hand. When I first arrived I never took their hand as I was too concerned with germs. Now I always take the hand offered. For one thing, it is important and polite. For another, there is a culture of handwashing in Ethiopia. I have not been in many bathrooms without soap and people wash their hands before any meal as they eat with their hands. The compound is surrounded by a cemetery, and beyond that on one end is a Mosque, the other end an Orthodox church. The calls to prayer compete in the evenings and it is quite a cool sound to listen to. The dogs in our compound howl when this starts up. It is quite the humorous thing. I still continue to see and try to mentally log all manner of different bird species. I wish I had that East African bird field guide I hear so much about.

the house in old airport where I lived with the family

the Christian Brothers community room
 the kids I took care of for two weeks
 Kelemwork and the New Year breakfast spread - injera is the traditional "bread" seen here in rolls in the basket.
 The guard Wolke and driver at the family's house
 Coffee ceremony with Belaye
 Lala the dog

For the New Year there were men standing with flocks of sheep and goats in every muddy empty lot. People led the animals away and brought them home to slaughter. It is tradition here to slaughter an animal to eat for the feast day. Also traditional is on New Year's Eve to build a bonfire. I did this with the kids and working staff in the Ethiopian family's compound. We had special bundled wood, not sure which tree it came from, that we all were meant to put into the bonfire and hold over the flame while singing a song. The song is a call and response and I found it easy to catch on and join the singing. The song was asking if you'd seen the flowers that grow in the spring here - we have been in their "winter", really cold monsoon season. I haven't actually seen these flowers yet, but I am told they grow in this period in and around the city. We lit off two roman candles and then as the fire died down, I was told that we were meant to jump over the flames. This is symbolic of cleansing the previous year and moving fresh into the new one. It felt exhilarating to jump the fire and also good to make this symbolic act and move into a new experience.

lot near to where I lived in Old Airport with small remaining herd on the day of the holiday and remnants pile. this place was full of animals the day before.
 negotiating over the hides

typical rainstorm in addis

guard slaughtering the sheep

new neighborhood - walk to Addis Ababa University in the early morning

After I watched as the Ethiopians demonstrated traditional dance moves and the daughter competed with modern ones. We all had a good laugh and even Lala, the resident poodle, joined our party. The night before was my first night out in Addis to check out the live music scene. I went with an Ethiopian colleague to a traditional house that is geared toward special events and tourism. The musicians play traditional instruments and there are dancers. I didn't have my camera with me for this, sorry. The people in the hall were dressed to the nines. There are about 80 ethic groups in Ethiopia and the different regions have distinctly different music and dancing. So the performers went through these and the dancers came into the audience to get audience participation. I found myself doing the shoulder dance - you can find this easily on youtube. The movement and beats to some of the Ethiopian music are very exotic for our ears and eyes. In fact some of the movements look otherworldly. Overall it is a very happy and high energy type of music and dancing. After the traditional place we went to one jazz joint that was finished and then to an underground Ethiopian music club. The sound was entirely too loud in this place and I could not hear properly for two days afterward. But Ethiopian reggae may convince me to start listening to reggae again. The club was hosting a singing competition. Three different performers cycled with the band and all the Ethiopian men were on their feet dancing traditional dances. Again, this music, though electrified and accompanied with bass guitar, had particular regional origins and there are corresponding dances. In Ethiopia, the dance scene is just the opposite of the States. Groups of men get up and dance together and the women hang back. When I could stand it no longer, I got up to dance and to my relief, a group of Ethiopian women from the next table got up to dance as well. It felt great to be out and dancing and happy.

A typical day in Addis includes the line taxis. These are minibuses that are almost all falling apart. They are painted blue and white, as are the private taxis, but cost only 2 birr rather than 80 birr to get across town. There is 17 birr to $1.00. There are boys who call out the destination of the taxi and you find them clustered in groups in certain areas of the city. Usually you can stand on the street of a given line and hail one down. They pack these things to the gills and people will sit on the sideboards and wooden benches improvised alongside the proper seats. These felt very novel when I first started to take them, but now to me they are just essential for travel around Addis. The offices I visit are usually very far apart. During the holiday people were even transporting tied up sheep and chickens either in the back or just at our feet.

Yesterday morning I woke up to the bleating of a sheep in our yard. One of the guard then sat in front of this sheep as it was eating to sharpen his knife. I had to leave the compound for a meeting, but in order to do so, I had to pass the slaughter. I tried to get out before it happened, but I was too late and then had to wait as the animal struggled with its throat slit on the ground. It all happened very quickly, and when the man had tied the animal upsidedown to the tree, I was able to pass by without feeling squeemish. I just don't like to watch anything die. Last night the sheep was served for dinner, and though I really wanted to eat it as I love fresh meat, I couldn't bring myself to. I hope I get over this feeling, it seems a bit silly.

I have completed the first phase of my research in Addis. In my next post I will speak more about this and what comes next. I am about to travel again and may be traveling and in the field for the rest of my time in Ethiopia. I cannot believe how quickly the time has gone!

09 September 2012

Ethiopia New Year approaches

I've been posting stories about Sodo, but that was two weeks ago. Since then I have been in Addis making good headway on my research. The weather is still cold and rainy and yesterday we even had a hail storm. I had to travel across town in a taxi and the streets were absolutely flooded. It was mayhem. When I am in Addis, between working with the two children I live with and my research, I do not have much downtime, excepting Saturday/Sunday afternoon/evenings.

Last weekend we went to the Mother Teresa orphanage for their birthday celebration. The kids put on a variety show. It was fun to participate in their celebration. There was funny moments when the kids would dance to Ethiopian music, then cut to American hiphop, then back to Ethiopian. The Ethiopian folk music caused the boys to smile and dance in a cute way, whereas the hiphop caused them to display attitude and pull breakdance moves. Another skit was a karate demo with some absolutely impressive moves. I sat next to a Benedictan monk from Yorkshire who was a character and enjoyable to converse with. Kelemwork brought her kids and also Sister Carol joined us. The funeral was on Sunday and it was announced that religious services had been cancelled, but we all went to the Vatican for the English language mass that was held. I met new Comboni Missionary priests from Mexico and Peru who were telling me the difficulties of learning the Amharic language.

This past Friday I thought I'd have a quiet day of library research. I had a meeting in the morning with the Director of the institute who helped me to obtain my visa and is meant to host me here. He reinforced that the institute is really not prepared or equipped, or maybe it is lack of willingness, to help with my research. But it matters little since I have been able to make such good contacts and headway regardless - with the generous help of the Catholic community here. Then I had a chance meeting with a guy I go to school with in Oregon. I just ran into him on the street. I had no idea he would be here, but he then offered to bring me to two offices I had been trying to locate in town (unfortunately the people at the Institute have mentioned that they know these offices but were unwilling to take me there or tell me where the offices are). The first offices we visited, the Nile Basin Initiative offices along with the an Ethiopian specific office for the Nile, were empty of any employees. We were told they were traveling. The second office seemed empty. We called the number and a woman answered saying she could see us on the street and let us in. I was met with a jovial and witty director who then spoke with me for the next 45 minutes about various things concerning the dam. This was not my plan and so I missed lunch and moved to yet another interview at an environmental NGO, did not get to the library at all, and finished my day around 6pm. All of this information is great to gather and I'd rather be spontaneous and go with any opportunity offered.

The story of this dam, from the national level, looks to be very different than I expected. I am interested to see what the results will be once I move to a local level of interviews. I am optimistic about the future of Ethiopia and this region in general. It seems that if conflict can remain out of the way, internal or otherwise, the countries of Eastern Africa have a great opportunity to develop.

The New Year is marked with the buying of sheep or goats and at many places around town you see herders with a mess of the animals for sale and people leading them away by one leg or on a string. Right now there is singing in the air and apparently on the holiday eve there are bonfires and feasts. I don't know what I will be doing for the holiday, myself. I am told that once the New Year passes, the rains stop, and sunshine returns. I look forward to sunshine and summer weather.

I met with some American neighbors last night who live just across the street from where I am living. One man is the friend of a friend in the States, and we laughed at the strange coincidence of realizing that we lived just across the way from one another. They have lived here for 2 years and have a pet tortoise that they rescued from the street. He and his wife hosted dinner and another couple living next door joined. They work for Catholic Relief Services. I may go up and speak with people in their offices about the water projects they are working on in Ethiopia. We had a delicious meal, followed by interesting conversation, wine, and a warm fire. It was an evening of comfort and normalcy that I find, to my surprise, that I miss, and I had a great time with them, though it has made me a bit homesick.

My friend Father Ayele is leaving to his post in the Omo River Valley on Wednesday morning. I will miss him. But, I too plan to travel from Addis very soon, as my interviews are almost complete at the national level. Right now I plan to travel to the south, stay at the convent to process my data, and take a few days off to go to Bale National Park. If you are coming to Ethiopia, please let me know. I'd love to have someone to trek around the Simien Mountains with!

07 September 2012

Another experience in Sodo and ideas about poverty and sharing

Day 2 in Sodo.
F. Ayele was very excited, speaking more rapidly and loudly than usual. We were taking the car to his home village, Mokenisa. We got on the road with everyone else in the universe it seemed, and dodging goats, cows, people, carts, horses, sheep, and dogs we made our way to the village. At some point we turned off of the main road to the amusement of a pack of young boys. They clammered up to my open window and wanted to know what was up. I pulled out my camera and asked if they wanted a photo. One guy in particular was a total ham. Another was wearing a pair of cool shades and I teased him and put mine on too. They howled in laughter. All the kids were vying for an angle into the camera lens and happy when I showed them the little screen with their mugs – running away after. A few of the boys were holding small whips and I looked over to see that they had horse and cart setup. The first time I had seen this. The horses are decorated with coins, silk flowers, yarn tassels (usually red), and bells. Though I wouldn’t say these small horses are in fine shape, they were rather skinny and worn out…although I do intend to find out where I can go riding before I leave Ethiopia, I decided to hold out on this request for the time being.
I thought we were at the village as we made our way on this awful road – the rains had really potholed and puddled the dirt road and exposed large sharp rocks. I feared for the tires. I watched as local kids took water into jerry cans from some of these mud pools in the road. F. Ayele said, bad road, bad people. I am not sure what this means. The government apparently has a plan to pave some of these smaller roads too, but not quite yet. After a time of bouncing around on this holy road, we turned off yet again into a grassy field. Donkeys and cows stood by and watched us passing through the trees. I preferred this road – just a dirt track in the grass really. And after another bit of time, we were in Mokensa.
We pulled into a yard of a two rectangular houses, the home of F. Ayele’s mother and brother, with lots of little kids standing about. A sheep skin was hung to dry outside. The house was painted teal blue and white. Inside was a dirt floor, one wall covered in framed pictures of the family, a black board that F. Ayele bought for the purposes of teaching the children hung blank on another wall. I was seated on a wooden bench facing out the front door to the blinding daylight, which made the darkness in the mudhouse even more stark. I had a hard time seeing anyone’s face in the space. F. Ayele’s mom sat on an old tire. She was a tiny whisp of a woman. His brother likewise looked like an older brother, though he was younger. No one wore shoes and their feet looked as though they had never in their lives worn shoes, swollen to twice the size of shoed feet. I had seen this before in the Bahamas on a research trip years ago. They spoke of two of his nephews who died of malaria – they were very young – it wasn’t clear when this had happened, but I imagine not in the too distant past. There were always more babies though, it seemed, weren’t the children wandering about in the yard also his nieces and nephews? Yes they were.
So some of what I will write about next is a bit unpleasant. It appears in this village that if you are a big man – it does not matter your age, you have wives. I find this unfortunate because; 1. this reflects the problem of women not being able to own their own land unless they are widowed, 2. when a man is older he cannot provide some basic things as well, but he has very young children, 3. sometimes these older men with teenage wives are tyrants and beat the girls into submission. I met one such man and his two wives who had just lost their 15 year old son to malaria because no one thought to take him to the clinic after 3 days of fever. I watched as the two women breast fed two children – trading off as one kept crying unsatisfied with either breast. The men and I sat on one side of the room eating and drinking coffee, and chatting. The women were silent on the other side of the room, given food only after the men had eaten their fill. The floor was dirt. They served us coffee made from the leaves of the plant, rather than the bean. I came to find out later that this is also filled with bitters and is sort of a tea. They also served ears of corn. The Father would not allow me to drink the coffee and eventually took the ear of corn off of me, though the father in the house tried to hand me another with pleading milky eyes in his weathered wrinkled face. He crouched on a low seat next to me. As people finished their corn, they tossed the spent cob to the cows feeding on the other side of the room. There were only a few things in the room, cooking implements and a large farming thing in the corner that I realized later was plough for the team of oxen. The walls are made of mud and grass mixed on a wooden frame. I watched at another point some young men actually constructing one of these houses – throwing handfuls of mud against the side of the skeletal house. The smell of the coffee and corn was quite pleasant. One of the babies would not stop crying and eventually one of the women put her out the back. This is something I am told happens very rarely in Ethiopia, or maybe in Africa in general. Babies and children are not left to cry for any length of time. Any other time I have been around a child beginning to cry on a bus or something, everyone around takes a turn trying to amuse the grumpy child. We made our way outside. Father Ayele was called into every house that had a need. I followed at his heels with a crew of shoeless tattered in rags dirty smiling and shy children. A woman with chronic health issues (tubercular), another widowed with no money, orphaned kids being taken care of by the village with wild hair and stained shirts, a deaf girl who was presented because she so wants to go to school but the village school won’t have her. This particular girl looked so distressed and hissed to the Father in her tongue, but I am sure that he understood her. I got her to smile at some point by goofing with her. I cannot remember what it was that I did, but her smile lit up her entire face and made me smile too. A young man followed me about too telling me that he could only find work very far away and did I know how he could find work closer to home. This was the beginning of a line of talk that would exhaust me quickly. People were constantly asking my advice for their predicaments. How could I help? I must have heard that 700 times. I understand that it is hard to deal with many things in such a country as Ethiopia that is very very underdeveloped. And even harder to conceive a way out when you are educated and living in one of the more forgotten regions of the country. But, I didn’t understand that when I would offer some advice or solution for them to try out, they would then ask again for me to help them – instead of wanting to search out the answers, they want a sponsor. It also struck me that some of the people in their twenties had similar problems to people at home in their twenties: this guy telling me that he had a job, but it was far from home and why couldn’t he find a job close to home so he could be with his family? A girl who was terribly underpaid as a social worker, but who wants to find a scholarship to study in America. Another boy who is working now as a nurse, but would like to go back to school to become a doctor, though he cannot balance working full time and going back to school, how could he just be a student again in Ethiopia? Some of the other problems sounded like the gaping holes that the government is not fulfilling and that missions like that of the Catholic Church just do not have the resources to do at a larger scale.
Everywhere we went there were teems of children, unsupervised, naked or partially clothed, filthy, working with sheep, goats, cows, running water, wood, grass, things on their little heads, running, all the time running, and smiling and waving or shouting. Smiles played upon the lips of most people, not of course everyone. A widow and her daughter invited me for coffee, but I could not take the offer – if they offer me coffee and corn or beans then that means that they themselves have less. I also let F. Ayele lead on decisions of where I could enter, and where I could not. He was, after all, attending to his home village not as a fellow villager or visitor, but as a priest.
We sat in one more house of a slightly better off resident, another coffee round offered, beans and corn mix that a whole gaggle of boys sat down to consume. This house was a round house more in the traditional style. The one large round room is divided in half by a mud wall in the center. The ceiling is left skeletal of the round pattern of wood roped together. I really wanted to photograph the pattern, but the insides of these dwellings are so dark, I would have disturbed everyone with my flash. I wondered curiously if F. Ayele had been like one of this crew of boys, laughing and happy to eat together. They gathered around a round tall straw basket/table. I also wondered morbidly, how many of these shining faces would make it to adulthood. From the numbers of deaths I had been hearing about in the village, and the amount of funerals and dead bodies we had passed on the road, I think the statistics are against them. Some of them had running noses, but not the way I am used to seeing, or their skin looked the wrong color and texture. Some of them were very skinny, others had distended bellies, probably full of worms. Some of the very little ones were terrified of me. This was the harvest time, the time of plenty and they had just had rains – people were happy and working hard in the fields, collecting things for market. And once in awhile I would see an anomalous child in a beautiful fluffy white dress, or with perfectly done braids, and I would wave back at the smiling face. We passed a very large tree in the village full of bees. At one point back on the road we passed by a funeral pyre with a woman on top, cloaked in a blanket, too poor for a coffin.
The coffin sellers in Addis strike me. On my walk from Sister Carole’s to Holy Savior I pass them, on either side of the main road. There are coffin sellers next to flower sellers. Flowers for graves made of paper or plastic. The coffins are garishly adorned with sequins and tassels of various colors. The men in the shops just waiting. Death hangs in the air here. Not only the death of Meles, which is every day celebrated here – the people miss him very very much. But of children and the sick and the old. I keep being told that this Sunday will be the last, but last Sunday was the last, and honestly I fear when the last Sunday will be the last. It started to warp my mind. The conspicuous travel, as I stick out so much here and people are so unused to seeing white people that I am sometimes like a celebrity in both good and bad ways. The constant solicitation – not so much the beggars, but the people who give me detailed accounts of what they specifically need from me, and do not let off even when you give some idea of an answer – I am certainly NOT qualified to answer most any of the questions. The death and raw poverty of people with disease or malnutrition.

“If you have something, share,” chanted a tiny imp of a girl who followed me along the path to the Blue Nile Falls the weekend before Sodo. The word share was drawn out. She and her friends had just finished dancing, singing, and clapping for money as tourists passed by. At once I am in awe of the generosity in the rural areas (as is the case almost anywhere in the world), and frightened by the desperate grip on life – the isolation of these remote communities, the lack of water, hygiene, doctors, resources. I am told that many of these women have their children right in their homes. That often they do not trust the hospitals. A peace corps volunteer working with women told me this, she said she didn’t blame them as the hospitals are full of spiders, but certainly issues of fistlers (?), or 1 in 16 deaths in childbirth, would be better handled in a hospital, spiders or not.
I am sorry. I tend to want to tell a happy story – give people something to laugh about or a reason to want to visit a place like Ethiopia. I try to see beauty in the world around me, even when that world is distorted and damaged, when the mirror image coming back to me makes me ashamed. I am sorry to say that I cannot remain robust and strong against the onslaught of constant things that chip away at my sanity, my heart, my patience, my compassion, my optimism. I feared this would happen coming here. And it comes and goes. In this particular experience, even though there was laughter in the day, witnessing the struggle hurt my heart.

We finished our time in the village by visiting the Catholic mission there, meeting with the Sisters who work in the clinic, the Parish priest, and the story I told before about the few hundred kids who loved listening to the stranger speak with the local teenage boy – who was also asking how he could find a job with his psychology degree in this general area so he could be close to his family.
The sun was well into setting when we finally got on the road to home, the mountains turned orange, then purple. We were back in time for evening prayer which I found most necessary after such a day of overstimulation. I could not at once digest the beauty of the surroundings, the lushness of the farms, the way the sunlit banana leaves shone like beams, and healthy animals – chickens, cows, goats, sheep – with the rough poverty and the children everywhere who I don’t know what to say.
I want to share this thought: It is easy to shelter ourselves from the storm of suffering humanity by claiming a tribe and identifying with a geographic place with easily expressed boundaries. I am American, from the Pacific Northwest, the best place, but also a place with its own problems with unemployment, poverty, etc. why would I worry about anyplace else? It is also easy to send money to a charity that is taking care of theoretical children in theoretical poverty. I sponsored a young girl in Tanzania while I was working, dropped her when I went back to school, who knows what became of her education or if the money was ever getting to her specifically in the first place? Easier yet is talking about and claiming to understand and empathize with such things as people living in a warzone or gathering water from totally unsanitary water sources in a poor country. How many times have I been a part of these conversations – and the solutions offered are usually so easy to boggle the mind as to why these things are happening, but in reality, are solutions ever easy? But, easiest of all is to claim ignorance, shut off any connection to anything outside of our little worlds by convincing ourselves that we have no connection to humanity if the humanity in question does not live where we live, speak the same language, have the same skin color, the same sexual organs, the same religion, the same life experience as we have had. Or saying that such talk is depressing or too heavy. I am not African, how can I know what is going on there, why would I care, what bearing does a place like Ethiopia have on foreign policy, on what is going on there that relates to anywhere? Ah, but I beg you to consider – are you human?
It is satisfying to eat too much at nice restaurants, talk about the latest fashion, hobbies, music, gossip, women, Hollywood actor, Republican Party nominee, and drink too much alcohol. Who is harvesting that food, cooking the food, serving the food – aside from some flirtatious acknowledgment – who will clean up after you? I cannot help but wonder at all the times I enjoyed time eating out at nice restaurants with friends. What that meal cost – how many people could have eaten a simple meal for the same price for one or two? How many pairs of shoes or underwear or medicines? Is it comfortable to worry about our own hides; what sort of job will I have next? where can I go on vacation this year? I should put in another Amazon order this week…I have been this person plenty and am sure I will be again, given the opportunity. What is not easy is putting ourselves into the throng of suffering humanity and realize that these are our brothers and sisters, if they suffer, we suffer. I know some of you have felt this. We feel it in every cell of our body. With acknowledging this comes great responsibility. Now we should actually do something about them and ourselves and this imbalanced world. This imbalance is not fair. This is a human rights issue. It is not trendy or popular to care, it does not make you better than someone else, well-liked, or more enlightened. It is just absolutely necessary for the future of our planet and our species. We are all human – this is the common experience. People are people no matter what the package. We all want to laugh, love, eat, feel healthy, have a community, and reach for our dreams. But only some, very very few of us, are lucky enough to do so. And this luck has nothing to do with being clever, or deserving, or charming, or talented, or good, or entitled, or somehow special. God hasn’t blessed you because of something you’ve done or something you will do. The world isn’t giving you a job because you excelled at school. Some of what we have is through hard work? What is the measure of hard work? The muscles it creates, the bank account, the car, the wardrobe, the friends…I have seen people working very very hard for very very little in America and abroad, we all have. In the end, it is just luck – but here is the thing: those of us who are lucky should share. If you have something, share…her little voice may haunt me the rest of my days. You should ask her what she means. The answer is probably simple.

02 September 2012

kids at the Catholic mission in Mekanneesa

Trip to Sodo, near to Omo River

This is from days passed...trip out of Addis to Sodo last week.

We got up early in the morning and packed up our things. I vacated my room and stored my things downstairs, to the throaty and earnest words “you’re things will remain safe,” from Brother Dejene. Father Ayele and I left in a truck with another Brother. The morning was gray and cold as many of the mornings were in Addis since I arrived being their winter. Given the announcement that the Prime Minister Meles had passed away, no one was quite sure what to expect. It was Father Ayele’s suggestion that we leave the capital and go to the south, where he is from, so we would be safe from anything blowing up. Plus Father Ayele was very eager for me to see the south and tell him what I thought of the Catholic sponsored projects and see the way the people there live. The south in Ethiopia is the marginalized part of Ethiopia. There is a very high density of people and very high poverty. Though this is not typically the place where the famines break out because the land is fertile and there is much water, though drought has come time and again, including earlier this year. I would not like to see the place when this happens.
We stopped at a service station, gassed up and started to drive. I fell asleep in the back seat as the two men in front kept talking and the same city sprawl scene moved passed our windows. Eventually we came to a bus station – bus stations here are really just a big dirt parking lot place full of various types of buses and wandering men and boys. There are people trying to hustle people onto each bus, calling out the destinations, and then offering different prices. I guess the price probably reflects the speed with which we’d reach the destination. Father Ayele spoke to a few people from the bigger buses, which are colorful and often topped with all sorts of things, including animals sometimes. I took a photo of a loan goat laying atop a bus against a huge mass of bright yellow water jugs. We moved off to the minibuses. We secured two seats and waited until they had filled the things past capacity. We were four people over in the bus – they made additional seats with stools jammed between the benches. I luckily had a seat on a bench seat. The Father unfortunately got stuck on a stool, he gave his seat up to a woman, so he rode the next 5 hours with no back support. Because we were overpacked, the was no room at all and my paranoia about my bag with medicine in it was in between my legs for the journey. There is a strange phenomenon that occurs when traveling in minibuses in developing countries. People are afraid to open the windows. It drives Americans mad, including me. I kept asking for the boy next to me to crack the window, which he would do begrudgingly for a moment and then close it again. He would sometimes open it only to close it again immediately if the driver opened his window. I had heard before of a fear of two windows open at once – the draft is credited with making people sick – but this was sort of torture. The smell of bodies was not that disturbing, two years in Oregon had prepared me for this, but the temperature and humidity that seemed to be mounting each minute was enough to knock me out. I don’t know how long I slept I cannot remember.
When I woke up we were traversing a savannah – we had descended some thousand meters from Addis. The sun was shining and the landscape spread in either direction, green grass, tall leaved trees – the kind with flat tops that you imagine a giraffe to be pulling leaves off of…the ground appeared to have some rock debris, this is all volcanic rock and remnants – the Great Rift Valley. I don’t know how to communicate how amazing it is to me that I not only saw the origins of the River Nile, but also the Great Rift Valley! These names have been bouncing around in my imagination for decades. Now I was here. I could see vast lakes in the distance, shimmering blue. Suddenly we were upon them, the lakes. Maribou storks hunched like old men in the trees and on the lake shore in flocks. Other birds with long legs and longer beaks hunted in the mudflats, and the whole place was alive. We flew by on a good road, but I still got an eyeful.
We eventually rolled in Sheshemene. This town has a reputation. During the time of Haille Selasie, he granted land to the Rastafarians in this town. It is still a popular destination for western travelers to search out weed and chat. But everything I had read said that it was the least friendly town in all of Ethiopia toward foreigners, especially horrible for women travelers. I braced myself to get off of the bus, because it was in Sheshemene that we had to transfer. There was, of course, nothing to worry about. Nothing bad happened, aside from seeing a few young men high on chat. I saw almost no rastafarians about, just one museum. The Father and I took a break, he had the rest of his strawberries: the bus had pulled over at one point on the road to purchase strawberries from a local farm. (I so very much wanted to eat them, they looked amazingly red and everyone on the bus was sharing them out, but I knew that it was not safe for me to eat them. Fresh fruit and vegetables is the most common thing that foreigners get sick on in Ethiopia. It is such a shame. I am not sure that I will stick with this avoidance for the entire trip. How can I?) I had an Ambo – the local fizzy water. I mentioned to the Father that I loved these little three-wheeled taxis. They are imported from India – called Tuk-tuk or Bajaj. They are, like the short distance minibus taxis and car taxis, painted blue and white. It is a very good system that you can identify public transportation by the color. We then took a ride to the other side of town, toward the road we needed to travel on, on a Bajaj. He showed me a nice cafĂ© where he used to work when he had to work in Sheshemene for a time and then we ran into a boy filling a taxi to the south.
We caught a very nice ride with two men headed to Arba Minch to pick up a pile of foreign travelers for a touring company. They had been all over Ethiopia in the last two weeks with this tour. The tourists had flown to Arba Minch, and they were bringing the vehicle. It felt like a safari truck. The last 100+ km of our journey was then in this nice vehicle, though not less packed, so there was constant physical contact with the other passengers, and eventually I stopped apologizing for banging elbows or knees. The man driving was shouting about something to the other man in the front and Father Ayele also got involved. I did not realize how much Ethiopians talk, but I was to find out over the next week, that especially the priests I was staying with, passionately discuss things all the time. The landscape was changing, the soil bright red from rust – high iron content which also contaminated the water and caused local people to have this permanent brown staining on their teeth. The flat lands had been replaced with rolling hills, slumped eroded hills, gaping valleys with brown rivers, trees all along the road, and lots of small farms – with banana trees, maize, beans, and lots of other things I never identified. One feature I forgot about was flower farms – we passed about a dozen of these along the way – very nice greenhouses, must be outside money investment as the infrastructure is completely different to the rest of the place. I read about this flower trade from Africa to Europe similar to South America to North America. I tried to drift off to sleep but was awake to attention when I saw my first hyena. It was, luckily for me, not so luckily for it, dead and bloated at the side of the road. The things was HUGE. I do not really want to see one of these guys while I am here, because I fear when I do, it will be a bad situation.
The going was slightly faster on this last leg because we were not continuously pulled over by the highway police. So many times in the bus the police pulled us over and the boys driving talked them out of whatever bribe they were looking for. Everyone smiling and laughing in the end. Each time I managed to hide my white face from the probing officers. I didn’t want to be the cause of any bad dealings. The larger buses were not as lucky. I saw countless numbers of these buses with all the passengers on the side of the road and the cops going through the top gear or going through the passenger’s bags. Corruption I was told. Indeed, I remember this well from traveling in Serbia with Adrian many moons ago – how many tickets we talked ourselves out of, I do not remember now. Five, six? I also noticed many more people on the road. This would also be a scene I would witness much over the next days. The road is where everything happens it would seem.

When we arrived in Sodo I was excited as it is perched on a mountainside overlooking more lakes, but it is a city and I was sort of hoping for a town. It turns out that Sodo is the perfect sized place – and if I can make it back there for any duration, I will surely do so. Though the 8 hours it takes there is a bit of a deterrent. The fog was drifting on the mountains surrounding the town and we arrived at the sanctuary of the Friary, a well maintained compound with large blossoming tree in the center, and Italian style design one level monk space. The place was simple and lovely. The resident head Father welcomed me and immediately offered to cook me an egg. This was the first egg I had had in weeks and I was so overjoyed! I immediately took a great liking to this fatherly man with totally peaceful vibe.
I was shown my guest room, which again was simple cot in a clean space with adequate bathroom adjoined. I had enough time to unpack when F. Ayele called to me to tell me that an American doctor had come to see me. Apparently someone called him or he heard there was an American here and came over by motor bike with a local kid. We then commenced to talk about all manner of things, but mostly about his life. What an absolutely amazing man this is! He and his wife came to Ethiopia, specifically to Walayta, to work with women in their retirement – he as a gynecologist, she as a teacher. They had heard that the death in childbirth was 1 in 16 here, for a variety of reasons. Also the rate of females going to school is super low. This has many reasons really, but poverty would be the paramount reason, as I was soon to experience first-hand.

The Father had called for a coffee ceremony. My first. The coffee ceremony is central to much socializing in Ethiopia, especially in the rural areas. They offer an ear of corn, usually grilled, but undercooked, and coffee – the special coffee has butter in it. I was tempted to dip my corn in the coffee. And though I thought I could not finish it, I did out of respect. It reminded me of a time I had mistakenly put salt in my coffee rather than sugar – it was sadly the last bit of coffee in the apartment – and as soon as it touched my tongue I did a spit take. Not this time, luckily. The doctor invited me back to his place on Sunday to meet his wife and after we took a tour of the schools on the premises, he headed home. F. Ayele brought me to an adjoining “slum” neighborhood. He said that this was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Sodo, but there were some people he wanted me to meet. We found a modest home with several unrelated people residing there. A young girl was trying on her graduation uniform, with motorboard. She was graduating in two days. A woman and her young son greeted us. Another woman who appeared to be tough as nails and who works as a mechanic. A boy was called for, he arrived and gave the Father a huge hug. All of these people live together because F. Ayele got them together and then paid the rent for the place. The two teenagers are orphans, the mechanic was also an orphan, and the woman was a cook at the Friary, got pregnant and the guy split. It was touching grouping and everyone was happy and chatting. F. Ayele had worked in this Parish for 6 years, but had been gone the last 2 years working on the Somali border with refugees and orphans, and the US military. The entire time we were in Sodo, it was difficult for us to move far on the road without someone coming to hug him or greet him with smiles and happy tones. F. Ayele also wanted me to see how simply people live – he said yes, you see the green all around, it looks like a rick lush land, but inside there is nothing – the people have nothing. And indeed, this I did see.

We ate dinner in community with a mess of other Brothers and Priests including some very old Italian men who came to Ethiopia decades before as missionary brothers. One in particular was a very funny man who felt like a grandfather, Father Mariano. He convinced me to eat all manner of fruit and food that I had never seen before. Local cheese, ox, local wat, a fruit called bull’s heart: he is the resident mechanic and gardener with thick thick hands always creased with dirt. He also lent us his car to travel with over the days we were there. F. Mariano and I watched the European news in Italian for part and in English for the other half, discussed some politics, had a good laugh and retired. I was so excited to fall asleep to the singing of tree frogs. I was also super excited to sleep inside of my mosquito netting – it felt more like the tent I used to have on my bed when I was kid. I was not super excited to be woken up in the night by howling and agitated barking of the compound dogs. I was terrified imagining that a hyena had made its way into the compound, especially punctuated by the yipping and screaming of one dog and following dead silence.

things for coffee ceremony
 Father Ayele and his self-sponsored graduate
 near meles funeral tent in Sodo, foreground is a Bajaj, background are people coming to demonstrate.
 Typical street scene - there will be more to show the life on the street. These kids are helping a donkey pull the heavy load on the cart.