Melkam Fasika – My final holiday in Ethiopia

Injera – spongy flatbread, shiro – chickpea stew, eggs, bread, popcorn, tej – honey wine, coke, and coffee. Followed an hour later by rice & tomatoes, potatoes, fresh salad, tomato bread (yes, this is real), a carrot cake-like substance, a beverage composed of barley & sugar, and coffee. Not your typical Easter meals. For Americans or Ethiopians.

Every Ethiopian I know spent the day gorging themselves on doro wat – a spicy chicken stew, now that fasting is over. But I don’t eat meat and everyone here knows that. Which is why I usually only celebrate holidays with my compound family – Ethiopians are very generous and any family I visited would make a feast of food just for me.

But since this Easter is my final “big” holiday in Ethiopia I accepted an additional invitation: my counterpart’s. I’ve spent the last two years working on projects large and small with Elsa, an English teacher at my main school Adare. So a mere hour after my giant meal with my compound family, I found myself once again sitting in front of a mountain of food made just for me.

Both families were kind enough to turn their TVs to CNN while I was with them, so our conversations surrounded the improbability of losing an entire plane, why 100,000 people thought it was necessary to visit the Vatican on Easter, and who’s in the wrong: Ukraine or Russia. Never a dull moment.

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Thanksgiving: Take two

This year, there was no training to bring all of us together. So instead of having 70 volunteers swarm Addis, we were left to our own devices.

I decided to take part in a Peace Corps Ethiopia tradition – an Assela Thanksgiving. Assela is the hub town all of our training sites were based around, and I hadn’t been back since I left, last August. So I caught an early minibus and began the trek.

Only the first 30 minutes were done solo. I was soon in Shashemene where I switched buses and joined up with a fellow G7 volunteer. We made our way to the next bus station – in Assasa. Another quick transfer and we were finally in the home stretch, only another two hours to Assela.

We arrived, joined some other PCVs and enjoyed a leisurely afternoon in the lobby of the hotel that hosted all our trainings a year ago – they had gotten wifi and were seriously moving up in the world! The food off the menu was even tolerable (I don’t think I ate much more than bread and bananas on the days we were forced to lunch there).

That evening we all joined together (there were probably 15 of us) to watch the traditional awesomely bad sci-fi film. This year’s gem? Sharknado…classic. From the moment it started I knew we had struck gold, but what really solidified it was when *SPOILER* Lauren (from Make It Or Break It – don’t know her real name) was pulled out of shark after another cast member had been swallowed whole by the same shark and had used a chainsaw to free himself from the inside out. Awesome.

That night we all went to bed quite content, seriously looking forward to the spread of food we’d have before us the following day. A few of the volunteers used the morning to slave away and cook the food. That, however, included slaughtering a sheep, so my boyfriend and I decided to go for a hike instead.

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Miraculously, we managed to find our way back to this tree, a good 30 minutes uphill from Assela proper. You’re probably wondering why it was so important we find this tree specifically. Well, this tree happened to witness our first kiss, and Chandler, being the more romantic of us two, wanted to hike back up to it. It was an incredibly sweet moment.

Then began the hike back down – much easier : ) It was filled with waves of amber…something we didn’t notice on our way up, due to our preoccupation with finding that tree!

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The power of reading

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This past week marked the start of my new Reading Program at Adare Primary School. In the span of 4 days I taught 23 classes with a total of 1,368 students, grades 1-8. Each class was held in the library so that students who’ve never held a book of fiction before would get a chance to read for an hour.

The plan (hope) is to repeat this program once every month. Grades 1-6 got an introduction to literature. We read some books aloud and then I passed out books for them to read independently. In the coming months we’ll have more focused readings…a day for fairytales, nonfiction, poetry, etc.

Grades 7 and 8 will be participating in a reading challenge. Anyone remember the BOOK IT! Program sponsored by Pizza Hut? Rewarding reading with pizza? Genius. So with that in mind, students will come in every month and read as many books as they can (and then answer the critical thinking questions I created for each book!), and the student from each class (there are 10 grade 7 and 8 classes) who reads the most/answers the most questions correctly will win a goodie bag at the end of the semester.

Goodie bags will include school supplies (most of which I’ve already been able to collect), games, and books. And that’s where you can help. After all, ’tis the season to be generous : ) You can buy a cheap, used book and ship it to Ethiopia FOR FREE – that’s over 7,700 miles if you’re in Minnesota! (Though of course you can ship from anywhere!)

If you’d like to help Adare Primary School Students, here’s what you do:

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Baby it’s cold outside…

It’s January 6th and I’m still listening to my Christmas mix. It’s strange because this is the least Christmas-y Christmas I’ve had and yet I’m constantly reminded that it’s the holiday season – tomorrow is the Ethiopian Christmas and all the hotels/shops are decked out with decorations.

This year I’m missing out on making snow angels, sipping hot cocoa by the fire, and looking for the pickle on the tree, but I replaced those things with some pretty great new traditions.

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The weekend before Christmas we treated ourselves to a resort day at the Haile to celebrate a friend’s birthday. That evening we went down to the lake for some fresh fish.

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The following day was Christmas Eve and to get in a festive mood, we decided to make paper snowflakes. Some of the ladies had been perfecting this craft over the previous weeks and I was sufficiently jealous of some of their snowflake-making skills.

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And then came time for the chicken killing…we perfected the act on the second chicken, my apologies to the first. I grew a little attached to them that afternoon, luckily I didn’t try naming them! Everyone said they were quite tasty.

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But I know what you’re thinking…you don’t eat chicken. You’re right, I don’t. But we had plenty of other delicious side items: wild rice soup, salad, glazed carrots, mashed sweet potatoes, and seasoned potatoes. Followed by dessert: chocolate pecan pie. Plenty of food to go around.

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We woke up Christmas morning, cleaned the kitchen we had annihilated the night before and then opened our Secret Santa gifts. The 5 birr limit was brilliant and I got a hand-painted pot containing freshly planted cilantro and some memorable photos.

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Then we spent the afternoon at the hot springs before getting all dolled-up for dinner at the lodge.

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Let the games begin…

If I had champagne, I’d ask everyone to cheer with me for my first truly productive week at site! You may be thinking this is long overdue, but after 2 months of training, 3 months of research, and a few weeks of dipping my toes in the water, I’ve finally gotten into the groove of things here. Saturday I had my first English Club for Teachers, Tuesday I had my first English Club for Students and Thursday was my first solo-training session. So I’m going to deem this week a success! And I even have another English Club this coming Saturday. I’ve been a good little worker bee : )

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Saturday we played some icebreakers to get to know each other because I had teachers from 3 of my cluster schools come. Then we broke off into groups to discuss what they wanted to learn in English, why they wanted to learn it, how they were already practicing English, and what we could do in the future.

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We ended class with tea and kolo. Many of the teachers said they were looking forward to future club meetings…possibly because of the tea and kolo? Haha I hope not!

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On Tuesday, we began the Student’s English Club by going outside, introducing ourselves, our favourite activity, and then posing for fashion photos. Most of the students posed the same way, so I’m definitely going to have to emphasize creativity and originality in future club meetings! That said, maybe I should appreciate how unmaterialistic this society is! One thing I don’t miss about America: advertising.

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From there to here

As the holiday season approaches, I’ve thought a lot about my experiences over this last year and the events in my life that have gotten me to where I’m currently at…

Two years ago, in December 2010, I had what I thought was one of the worst days of my life. I came home to find my roommates sitting at our dining room table – they told me we needed to talk. The following hour I was given a myriad of reasons why I was a terrible roommate and why they thought it best we not live together the following year. I remember walking away from that conversation feeling a little dejected, yes, but mostly angry. Who did they think they were? Calling me out on my faults without recognizing that they had plenty of their own. And what fueled the fire was that some of their accusations were downright silly, things that shouldn’t even matter or didn’t make sense. I was too upset to focus on their legitimate complaints.

I spent the night at a friend’s and left for Christmas break the following day, taking great pains to avoid seeing either roommate. It was over that break that I decided to apply to the Peace Corps. It was something I had first heard about at the beginning of college and it sounded like such an interesting concept. Living abroad for two years in a developing nation while serving in whatever capacity they needed.

I had spent the previous summer living and studying in Rome and I can very easily say that I had wanderlust. I didn’t want to graduate college, get stuck in a job, and never get out. And that fight with my roommates is what pushed me over the edge. I remember thinking at the time that I had no idea what I was going to do come August 1st. My lease would officially be over at the house, and while I could always move in with other roommates, I would no longer be going to college, and I didn’t know what I’d be sticking around for. So I thought about what I wanted most, and I realized I needed an escape – a fresh start. I applied to the Peace Corps a few days later.

Over the following months, certain people in my life belittled my decision and told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a Peace Corps Volunteer – that I’d never actually go through with it. Which, of course, only fueled my desire to leave and be the best volunteer ever, if only to prove them wrong.

Well, August 1st came and I still hadn’t heard a definite answer from Peace Corps, so I packed up my stuff and moved in with my grandparents. I told them and everyone else that it was temporary. I was going to find some part-time work, just to keep me busy, until I received the letter informing me where I’d be spending the next two years of my life. Only that letter took longer than I thought to arrive.

Months passed, and I was even put on medical hold for three months following my Lasik eye surgery. All the while I told everyone that what I was doing was merely temporary. I was going to live abroad. I was going to change the world. I was going to join Peace Corps. And I said it to so many people, so many times, that there came a time when I realized I couldn’t take it back.

During the year between graduation and moving to Ethiopia, I found a job I loved in a field that I was incredibly passionate about – publishing. But then April 2012 came around and I got the letter: Ethiopia. And I told everyone that it was a big decision, and I needed to think about it, but deep down I knew my decision had already been made. This is what I had been talking about for the last year and a half. If this wasn’t what I had been waiting for, why was I working three part-time jobs and commuting 45 minutes to work twice a day?

I accepted. And I gave my jobs my two-week notice a few days later. I spent all of May getting prepared. I made dozens of trips to REI – a place I had never even heard of before receiving my Peace Corps nomination, but by the time I left, most of the employees knew me by name. I went to Target day after day, always convinced that if I bought just one more thing I would feel prepared. That somehow buying that one additional item would prove that I could do this, that I could be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

And then the time came to leave, to say goodbye to everyone and everything I had ever known. Some goodbyes were harder than others, there was the unexpected realization that most of my friendships would fall to the periphery, and their lives would move on without me. And at that time, I felt like I was making a huge mistake. But I pushed through those feelings because it was too late, and I had already made my decision. So I got on the flight from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. not knowing what the hell I was thinking.

I got to baggage claim in D.C. and the first thing I saw was my friend Nicole. She was wearing a darling little dress and all I could think was yes, this was all worth it because I got a free flight out to see one of my closest friends. It was only afterward that I realized I could have just paid for the flight myself instead of signing up for 27 months of isolation. But that’s not what I focused on. I focused on having the best 24 hours I could with a friend I was going to have to say goodbye to for over two years.

And I did have the best 24 hours. In fact, those hours were so great that by the time we said goodbye and she got in her car to drive away, I felt utterly alone. But then, something incredible happened. I walked back into the hotel’s lobby and ran into a group of volunteers. They were going to lunch, and just like that, would I like to join them? I instantly felt at ease with this group of strangers – something that is very uncommon for me. I called home that night to tell my family that I had found my people. Others, just like me, who were giving up all they had ever known to seek adventures in Ethiopia.

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