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.

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