One really interesting conversation about “culture” that Nina and I had with some of the clinic staff was about etiquette and politeness. Being here has really opened my eyes to how my perceptions of people are influenced by my own cultural ideas of etiquette, and just how culturally shaped my ideas about politeness are. I noticed this first with the kids, with whom we speak the most English. I am instinctively bothered when the kids asked me for something by saying “Give me pencil” or “Emily, come,” or when they don’t say “thank you.” I realize that I get bothered by this unconsciously and I will catch myself about to say “what’s the magic word?” as I would to an American child. I have to check my unconscious reaction and realize that “please” and “thank you” don’t really translate here; you wouldn’t use them as much in Amharic. We get teased because we are constantly saying “Amasegenalu” (Thank you) to everyone at the clinic, something Ethiopians themselves wouldn’t do quite so frequently. It’s not that people here are rude at all (in fact in many ways they are way more polite and respectful than I would consider Americans), it’s just that this particular form of etiquette doesn’t translate.
Another part of “etiquette” that I’ve had to adjust to is how much touchier people are, and how much less personal space there is. It’s not really rude to walk into someone else’s house unannounced, or eat off their plate, or crowd over their shoulder to see what they are writing or doing. I don’t think I realized how much I have been conditioned to “give people their space” or “respect other’s privacy” until I came here. I was initially a bit uncomfortable with everyone always crowding around or peeking over my shoulder. Now I usually think it is nice when people are so affectionate and close, and I don’t mind showing people what I am doing, or my things. This might be a bit of a stretch, but the lack of personal space also kind of forces you to make sure that you are OK with anything that you do, write, or have being viewed and questioned by the people around you. Not necessarily a bad check on secrecy and bad habits!
Although “please” might not translate very well, in other ways Ethiopians are much more polite, respectful, and conscientious of etiquette rituals than Americans. I mentioned before how people only eat their right hand because the left hand is reserved for hygiene purposes. In fact, your left hand isn’t really used publicly at all. Kids who are left handed are taught to use the right (I’m pretty sure this is true for Michael, whose prodigious soccer skills are amplified by his left footedness). Another part of etiquette is a respect for elders that is taken extremely seriously and cuts across any sort of class or social boundaries; something I don’t think is necessarily always true back home. Also, it would be quite rude to enter a room without going around and greeting every single person by shaking their hand and touching shoulders or kissing them on the cheek. Even if you see someone every day you will follow this greeting ritual. The same thing gets repeated when you say goodbye. This is by far my favorite part of Ethiopian respectfulness. It means that every day I get to be bombarded, not once but twice, with hugs and kisses from all the kids. As time has gone on this hugging and kissing ritual has gotten way more extensive, especially with the younger kids. It now also involves lots of picking kids up and swinging them around, or being kissed five or six times repeatedly by the same kid. Although it sounds funny, what I might miss the most when I leave here is ending all my days with an avalanche of sticky kisses and dirty hugs.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity takes Lent to a whole new level, as Nina and I discovered when the period started last Monday (two days before Ash Wednesday). Giving up soda or facebook is just not really going to impress me ever again. Ethiopians give up all animal products- eggs, dairy, meat- until Easter. That in itself is pretty admirable, if you ask me. Being at the clinic means that Nina and I have also adopted this vegan lifestyle, which honestly isn’t much of a change from what we have been eating, except maybe for the no eggs part. Although you can still get animal products at bigger restaurants that cater to farangi, elsewhere it is quite difficult. Also, butcher shops run by Orthodox Ethiopians close down for the entire time, which is an economic feat that apparently isn’t the big issue that you might imagine.
The last day before Lent everyone goes crazy to eat as much meat as possible; something Ethiopians seem to be really good at doing. At the clinic everyone ate lunch together to celebrate. Eating lunch with the clinic staff is always an overwhelming but wonderful experience that involves lots of people crowded on benches in a not very well lit room, lots of laughing, and lots of coffee and incense. What always impresses me the most is just how much meat everyone is capable of eating. Ethiopians in general are really small people. I am considered tall here (I’m 5’5) and Melese, who is maybe 5’8, likes to boast that he is good at basketball because he is so tall (side note—he was hilariously flabbergasted when he met my 6’4 brother and hasn’t stopped talking about it since). Not only are people pretty short they tend to be extremely skinny. I think I had gotten used to how thin people are and forgotten to notice it until Nina and I were once again amongst a ton of farangi on our vacation. Then I was totally struck again by just how thin most people around the clinic are. Anyways, what I am getting at is that the clinic staff is small, especially the women. Still, at this one lunch every single person ate probably twice as much meat as I have ever been able to eat in my life! Especially impressive is how much the girls are able to eat in one sitting. I can only guess that after meals like that they are set for the next 24 hours.
I’m not sure I fully explained Ethiopian food before, so I will do it now to help describe what eating together at the clinic is like. Everything is eaten off of spongy bread called injera, which is made with a grain called tef that is pretty much unique to Ethiopia. It’s flat and when it’s made it is very large and round but then gets cut and rolled up. While we were in Lalibela our tour guide told us a funny story about a farangi who was brought injera and unrolled it in his lap, thinking it was a napkin. Injera doubles as a plate and as a utensil. You break off the injera around the edge of your plate and use it to scoop up the stews, veggies, or meat that are in the middle of your injera. The main stew is called shiro; it’s berbere, mashed up chickpeas, and other spices. Shiro is kind of seen as a peasant, ever day food and I always get weird looks from waiters and waitresses when I order it at restaurants, but it is by far my favorite Ethiopian stew. They also eat a lot of lentil stew, cabbage, collard greens, and beets. These stews and veggie dishes are put in separate piles in the middle of the rolled out injera. At big gatherings like the one we had at the clinic people don’t have individual plates, rather, the whole injera is spread out on a special injera table and everyone eats collectively. Also, you can only eat with your right hand it is very unhygienic to eat with the left.
Back to Lent! Since that day, everyone here has been living the vegan lifestyle! This means that my absolute favorite thing to order at restaurants, Betenyatu (fasting plate) is always available and so so so delicious. But the fasting in itself is not all that Ethiopians give up for lent. Most people will not eat until at least noon every day! And that is only if you are not “very close to the church.” People who are close to the church will go until three or even six in the afternoon without eating a single thing. For someone whose favorite meal has always been breakfast, to me this is a pretty impressive feat!
During this fasting time people go about their daily lives and business, but it’s interesting to see the small changes that are made because of people’s eating habits. Life in general has definitely slowed down a bit in the mornings. What has most impressed me is how much people accept fasting as a part of life, not really talking about it that much or complaining at all. The only person who always grumbles and complains is our friend Melak, but he grumbled and complained a lot before and we think he more does it to amuse us; teasing him is probably one of our favorite pastimes. Observing Lent here has given me a whole new appreciation for how disciplined and devoted people are capable of being, and I have earned a new level of respect for the people around me. It has also been so interesting to see just how much one’s religion can inform one’s life, and how much food and eating habits in general dictate daily life and lifestyles, no matter where you are.
Since Lent started Nina and I have had quite the eventful week and a half! My mom, brother, and sister arrived in Ethiopia and we got to travel with them to the South, stopping at Lake Langano and Lake Awassa and getting to see so much cool wildlife (hippos, ostriches, and warthogs among others, as well as enough birds to make my bird-watching mama a very happy camper!). There is an American naturopathy doctor as well as a physical therapist volunteering at the clinic, which has brought in a lot of new and interesting cases and lots of opportunities to learn and observe. The whole problem of Lent and fasting adds complications (sometimes quite funny in nature) to the work of the naturopathic doctor, but I will write more on that later!
By far my favorite part of the day every day is around four o clock, when all of the kids start showing up. This also usually tends to happen right after coffee time, which is a great arrangement since Nina and I both definitely need the extra caffeine to keep all of the kids semi-quiet and obedient. It’s funny to think back to the first week when they gazed at us silently and refused to answer any questions. Now every time we ask a question we are bombarded with fifteen, eager and bright eyed children jumping out of their seats with their hands in the air shouting “Me! Me!” My two most used Amharic phrases have now become “be quiet!” and “sit down!”
We have a group of about ten or fifteen kids that come regularly every day. They range in age from Abenezeer who is three (and possibly the cutest little goober baby in the world) to Dawit who is fifteen. Needless to say the age differences made figuring out a good system of keeping all the kids occupied quite the challenge at first. The two older boys, Dawit and Michael, are a huge help with pretty much everything we ever want to do; from translating instructions to keeping order. We start out by playing games or doing knitting/bracelet making as all the kids filter in from school. Uno and Connect Four are the favorites. Teaching the rules of Uno took quite a while, and I’m pretty sure most of the kids still change the way you play the game whenever Nina and I aren’t watching. Connect Four is the special favorite of Michael and Dawit, who would play for hours on end. Both boys are incredibly bright and love to get challenged and tested in pretty much anything they do. The novelty these past two weeks is that Nina and I went out and bought a bunch of paper and pens and with the kids we have taken on the project of making flashcards for all the vocabulary words that we have learned. Making the flashcards is great because it appeals to all of the kids, and even the youngest ones can participate by drawing the easy words (although Nina should get full credit for doing beautiful touch up jobs on most of the cards). We have been using the flashcards to play “fly swatter”, which is possibly the greatest language learning game ever invented ever. Fly swatter was invented by Nina’s high school Spanish teacher, and the kids go nuts for it. Ethiopian kids are a super competitive bunch and they love pretty much anything that you turn into a game they can win. Nina and I pick out a bunch of vocabulary words that are suitable for the two kids who are playing and spread the cards out on the floor, picture side up. They stand at the opposite end of the room and then we yell a word in English; the first person to run across the room, point to it, and give the Amharic word gets a point. The game can get crazy but the kids love it, and it’s got to be one of most effective ways of teaching a language to children!
Even more than fly swatter, what entertains and motivates the kids the most is hearing me and Nina try to learn the vocabulary in Amharic. They get such a kick out of the way we repeat and write down the words. They often burst out laughing at our pronunciation and they looooove to try and have us recall what we’ve learned. They also love to try and teach me thirty new words in very rapid procession and then expect me to remember all of them. I have a feeling they don’t have such an informal relationship with their teachers in Ethiopia, so the chance to get to quiz the teacher is quite the exciting phenomenon. I won’t forget the day I walked into class and Dawit was up at the front of the room with my book (which he had stolen). He told me to sit down and then called me up in front of everyone to list a bunch of Amharic words on the chalkboard! I don’t think I’ve ever seen some of the kids laugh so hard.
English class ends every day with bread and chai. Mulu makes the sweetest tea I’ve ever tasted in my entire life; there is so much sugar that when you finish there is still usually a teaspoon of sugar left at the bottom of your glass. The kids stick around to play soccer or volleyball or tag and often the staff members will join in on their way out of the clinic. That’s my favorite part of the day by far! The boys are incredible at soccer, they play for hours on end and usually in their bare feet. It’s amazing for how long the kids here will play the same game, or practice the same sport, before they tire or get bored. When we first got here I kept expecting them to complain of boredom and demand that we come up with the next fun activity, but it never happens. They will play the same thing, for hours on end, and never tire or stop laughing. This is just one of many things that the kids are teaching me in return.
This Sunday Selam drove us out of the city to visit the monastery and church where her father, who passed away last year, is buried. Getting to drive outside of the city meant cool scenery and a chance to see some rural villages, although I have to admit that hilly rides in the back of a pick-up truck on not very well paved roads are not exactly my favorite thing. I was happy that Selam didn’t go as fast as some of the cars that sped past us on the way there. Also, the quality of restroom stops decreases exponentially as you move farther away from the city!
The toughest part of the day was stopping at a home for orphans, old people, and the mentally ill that is run by monks near the church. A lot of what we saw would be sad in any context, but it was pretty obvious that the organization could really use better funds to improve living conditions and their ability to care for the elderly and mentally ill. The director is friends with Selam and it sounds like they are doing a lot to increase their visibility and grow as an organization (they even have a restaurant run by the monks, the profits of which go help support the shelter), and hopefully they will have a website up soon.
At the church Selam took us to visit her father’s grave, tucked away in a beautiful and shady cemetery. There were lots of funerals going on as we walked around and we were a bit taken aback by how expressive people here are at funerals. Wwe heard lots of loud crying, exclaiming, and shrill whistling noises as we walked around. The church is a very special place and known all around Addis. The priest who originally founded it (now a saint) is believed to have stood for 22 years on end in a cave near the church. Then one of his legs fell off and he kept standing on one leg for another 7 years! Now the water that runs into the cave is considered holy water and people come from all over to be blessed. The church itself was destroyed by Italians (the monastery was an important political spot during the occupation) and rebuilt by Haile Selassie in the 1950’s, so it has a modern look with beautiful stained glass windows.
At the church itself a sign prompts you to “take note of the following rules:”
1. Women during menstruation period are not allowed to enter the Church and cave.
2. Men and women who had sexual intercourse are not allowed to enter the church in 48 hours.
Luckily Nina and I were fine and we had a very nice tour of the church and the surrounding museum. Besides the tour itself we got lots of entertainment from our fellow tour mates, a German couple who I think may have actually been time traveling from the 1920’s. Their outfits took the “Eliza Thornberry Tourist” look (big safari hat, gray vest with lots of pockets and mesh inside, John Lennon-eque sunglasses) to the next level. They spoke to us in their strong German accents about how “fascinating the tribal ways of Ethiopia” were and told us this was their 10th visit to learn about the “unique Ethiopian people.” We had to keep from bursting out laughing the whole time. He also informed us of Whitney Houston’s death, which we had totally missed (we pretty much live in a bubble). He actually seemed to have some sort of obsession with Whitney Houston and went on for quite some time about her greatest works. Needless to say he kept us highly amused.
On our way home we stopped at the Portuguese Bridge (that according to the tour book was not actually built by the Portuguese…. I’m going to save myself the embarrassment of trying to talk about the history of the bridge because we’ve heard a couple of different accounts that all very much contradict each other). All sources agree that the bridge was built with ostrich eggs as part of the cement, which is pretty cool. I was bummed to find out that there are no more ostriches in that area, but there were tons of baboons which was really cool!! The bridge also had a fantastic view down to one of the rivers that runs into the Blue Nile. The cliffs that surround the area reminded us a lot of the scenery in Lalibela, and there were farms that grow tef (the flour that makes injera) and bananas. I will try to post pictures when we have good internet!
Now Nina and I are back at the clinic! We are focusing a lot this week on entering all of the patient data into the computer database and graphing the types of health problems and patients that come into the clinic. It’s pretty interesting work, especially trying to decipher all the Ethiopian names!
I know my mom has given this blog out to a bunch of her friends who spend time in Ethiopia (something I may or may not ever forgive her for… just kidding mom). Therefore Nina and I want to strongly recommend Ermias, a good friend of my moms and a wonderful taxi driver. Ermias is top on our list of “Paternal Ethiopians who Like to Take Care of Emily and Nina” (Debebe you will always be number one, don’t worry!) and will call us just to check up on us. His English is fantastic and he knows so much about Addis; he always has great advice and interesting fun facts. He also, in my humble opinion, has great taste in American music and I almost fell asleep listening to Jack Johnson and Norah Jones as he drove us home from dinner one night. Every time we have needed our fix of Western food he has never failed to be available. He’s very friendly, prompt, and he wears really cool sunglasses.
If you are in Addis and need a taxi driver you can reach him at 251913320687!
Here is a bit more on some of the wonderful people we have the privelege of working with everyday!
Melese & China! You basically have to describe them together; they are best friends and have been since childhood. These two are testimony to the extremely affectionate and close friendships that exist between Ethiopian men. The one time I have seen Melese genuinely sad was the day that China didn’t come to work because he was sick. Melese and China are a comedy show and while I do actually believe that they do a lot for the clinic (mostly dealing with government relationships and doing community health data collection) the entertainment that they provide is just as valuable.
Melese is able to make any situation funny. Whenever we feel uncomfortable with the attention we get from Ethiopian men Melese acts overly distressed and effusively apologizes “for myself, (dramatic pause) and for my country.” He exclaims that he knows absolutely everyone in the surrounding area and likes to go up to people on the street and strike up conversation about whatever comes to mind (I believe he may know half the people he talks to, and that is a generous estimate). He is also very musical and is always singing and dancing and trying to get the people around him to do the same. He loves to listen to the American music that we brought and has acquired a particular fondness for Taylor Swift. He really is one of our closest friends here and one of the few people at the clinic that we are constantly teasing. He can be extremely sarcastic (and he understands our sarcasm), something that must be hard in a second language and that I know Nina especially appreciates! One of my favorite Melese stories is when we offered to help build the chicken coop that is one of BNCO’s new projects. Melese looked at us with a very grave face and said hat “In Ethiopia, the women just prepare coffee.”
China is the more somber of the pair, he is kind of gruff and is always scowling in a half amused sort of way. We were so confused for the first week as to why his name was China. We finally got up the courage to ask and found out that his name is really Elias, but he apparently looks Chinese, which is why they call him China. I’m pretty sure even his own mother calls him China, and he wears a C necklace around his neck. To me he doesn’t look the slightest bit Asian, but it’s pretty funny nonetheless. He is not as loud as Melese but if you watch him closely he is always making mischief, placing people’s things in other places or quietly making fun of someone while they are talking. The two of them together keep everyone at the clinic constantly laughing!
Tsiga (little Tsiga, as opposed to big Tsiga!)- Little Tsiga is in charge of the orphan program. Selam hired her from around the area when she came to take a community health class and was so engaged and interested that Selam offered her a job. She is easily one of the most competent and dedicated members of the staff despite the fact that she is only twenty one years old and has no education past high school, if that. She bosses everyone around, us included, and is tough with the kids but you can see how much she cares. She is one of the most self-motivated people I have met. Every day when we do English lessons with the kids she sits down with her own notebook and pencil and participates in the class, not at all caring that many of the kids are more advanced than she is. While definitely poorer than many of the women her age at the clinic, she is not ashamed of who she is or where she comes from. I think I wrote earlier about how eager she was to have us into her home and to make tea for us. Unlike all of the other young women who work at the clinic, all of whom are very quiet and always seem to be in groups, Tsiga strikes out on her own, asks lots of questions, and always seem to get what she wants. I love and respect her very much, even though she still scares me a little!
Ato Gayale- Ato Gayale is my favorite of the two guards who work at Blue Nile. He is determined to teach us Amharic and believes he will accomplish said goal by speaking to us, very rapidly, as often as possible. When he finally thinks we might be understanding what he’s saying he likes to switch it up by speaking Orominya, a tribal language. Ato Gayale is the guard who wandered into my room when I was sick to ask why I wasn’t running. He loves to watch me run in the morning and likes to make comments on how I did that day (sometimes I’m probably glad that I don’t understand half of what he says). Once we were visiting an orphan home in the same compound where he lived, so he of course insisted on sitting in on the visit, and then bringing us into his own home and trying to serve us coffee. He also brings goats into the clinic every night before dinner time to graze…. It is quite unclear where these goats come from and what exactly their relationship to Ato Gayale or the clinic is. All I know is that Nina and I were laughed at by Ato Gayale and most of the orphan children when we got excited about the goats and how cute the little babies were.
In the last two weeks Nina and I have been accompanying the clinic staff on orphan home visits. All of the orphans live within walking distance of the clinic, although some farther than others. The visits have gotten better as we have gotten used to what is expected of us, but the first few times were pretty painful. We have developed a very informal relationship with the kids when they come to the after school program, and we have gotten to the point with all of them where we easily laugh, joke, and tease each other. Thus, we were both a bit taken aback at how shy and formal all of the kids became when we entered their homes. Adding to the awkwardness is the language barrier between us and the caretakers. Relationships between parents and children (or in this case usually grandparents or aunts and uncles) is very different in Ethiopia than what Nina and I are used to in the United States, so seeing the formality and timidity of the children in their own homes was a bit disconcerting at first. We also have to ask questions of the children in English, which is always a weird. First of all, we know the answers to the questions that we are going to ask them… “What is your favorite subject?” and “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Also, there is so much that we really want to know about their homes and the way that they live, but wouldn’t make appropriate conversation for these short visits. I do think many of the adults are proud to see their kids speaking in English, so that part has been nice. Now that we know the first few minutes are always going to feel a bit weird we are getting much better at communicating with the caretakers, all of whom have been very happy to have us in their homes. We always try to be good guests and be polite, but I have to admit that we both politely declined the “traditional Ethiopian drink” offered to us at one home. This drink was apparently alcoholic, had a greenish tinge, and appeared to have both dirt and seeds in it. The women who offered it to us also mentioned that she did not have any tap water available from her home, so the water was probably from a local stream…. Although we’ve both been raised to always be polite I think our parents will forgive us this one infraction.
Walking around the town and getting to enter homes has also given us the opportunity to observe lots of things about Kolfe and Ethiopian culture in general. Here are a few things that stick out in particular!
1. 1. Ethiopians do not like light in their house. Most of the families live in one room, usually part of a compound shared with other families. Sometimes it seems as if they are living near relatives and sometimes it seems as if they are just neighbors. The rooms tend to have one lightbulb and no windows, so we end up sitting in almost complete darkness. I guess when so much is done outside there is little need for light in your actual home. Even in the larger homes that we have visited in our time here people tend to sit in darkness and have few windows… Mulu is always bewildered that we open the shades in our little house and has a habit of closing them forcefully and aggressively pointing to the sun. This is usually accompanied by her simultaneously disapproving and affectionate shake of the head, something she is very good at.
2. .2. Familial relationships and the words to describe these relationships in Ethiopia are very loose and do not at all translate well. We have pretty much gotten used to the fact that everyone is a “brother” or a “cousin.” I can now understand completely why it can be hard to figure out if a child is actually an orphan. Often a caretaker will be introduced to us to as someone’s “mama,” and only when we ask questions do we realize it’s actually it’s a grandmother or an aunt. We are pretty sure that at one visit a picture of a young man was described to us simultaneously as a “brother,” “uncle” and “father”… I haven’t thought too much about this concept but I’m pretty sure it’s not possible!
3. 3. Ethiopians also have a very different ideas about pets. We tend to get strange looks for exclaiming that a dog or a cat is cute, and making very American “aawing” sounds over little puppies or kittens. Animals do not tend to have names… which we found out when we were told (accompanied by a strange look) that the cat was called “cat”. Duh.
4. 4. Everyone knows each other!! I realize that people are living in closer proximity than I am used to in Poestenkill, but still! We walk around with Melese and whenever we are in his neighborhood we pretty much stop and shake the hands of just about everyone we pass. That might be one of my favorite things about this place… when you see someone you know you always stop , shake their hand or hug them, and go through the “how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” exchange that Nina and I are just now beginning to master. All the words for “How are you?” “I’m fine” “good morning” etc. sound pretty much the same, so it sounds like people are just repeating back at each other a combination of “eh” and “de” sounds. I’ve kind of found that if you just act like you know what you’re saying and make sure not to enunciate too clearly people tend to think you know what you’re talking about, and might even tell you speak Amharic very well!
5. 4. People, especially men, are way more touchy than they are in the United States. You would be very hard pressed in the United States to see any young adult males holding hands, and yet here everyone (especially men) hold hands or link arms wherever they go. Men kiss and hug each other and will link fingers or lean up against each other during spare moments. So different from the formal relationships between men in the United States! I don’t think I realized how little we touch each other back home until I came here, where everyone is always sitting very close to you, touching your skin, holding your hand, or wandering into your room at strange hours of the day.
6. 5. Kolfe is really a half city, half village. It also is pretty interesting from a demographic perspective… a combination of wealthier people moving out of the city to build nice houses and people from villages coming in to Addis and settling in little shanty villages hidden behind the bigger condominiums and streets (not at all accessible by car). The street near to the clinic is referred to by most as “rich people street.” It is still very much in construction, with a large paved road and cobbled sidewalks. The houses are two stories and hidden by large gates, and we have even seen some Asian “farangi” who seem to be occupying some of the houses. It’s been interesting to watch the new houses go up and see how houses are built here…. Especially interesting to note that many of the builders and people working on putting the stone sidewalk together are women. These women wear large brimmed hats and cart heavy wheelbarrows of stone and mud around, and must breathe in about 2 tons of dust a day. They are called “koshasha’s” which literally translate to “dirty,” and most look about 50-60 years old. Many of the orphan caretakers do this, or make a small living cooking injera or washing clothes.
Anyways, this street and some of the bigger streets were really all we had seen of Kolfe before we started orphan visiting. We were very surprised when Tsiga took us out for the first time and just a few minutes away from the clinic we entered what looked like a very rural village, with mud houses and lots of trees and animals (chickens, goats, etc.) everywhere. These are the little neighborhoods that exist outside the larger streets, and most of the kids live in compounds within these neighborhoods. It’s amazing at how much hidden forest is left behind the bigger developed areas, and how you can take “shortcuts” around the bigger roads by climbing up and down forested hills and crossing little streams. The natural scenery would be beautiful except for the amount of garbage that is piled up everywhere. It’s very sad to see the piles of trash that line most of the hills and get stuck in the water all around Kolfe.
OK that’s enough social commentary for one blog post! I may or may not have any idea what I’m talking about, so I apologize to any Ethiopians reading this for any huge cultural misconceptions! Besides orphan visiting Nina and I have been busy with English class, entering and sorting patient data, and helping screen the patients that will see the American doctors visiting in the next few weeks. Hard to believe we are more than half way through with our trip.
This past weekend Nina and I flew to Lalibela, an hour and a half plane ride north of Addis. Lalibela is home to eleven stone churches that were built in the 12th century, allegedly in only 23 years, at the demand of King Lalibela and with help from angels and saints. The churches were like nothing I had ever seen before. They are not built up out of stone, each church has been carved out of one complete stone in the caves and rocks that surround in stone. Some are totally free standing while others are nestled into the caves themselves. The churches are divided into two clusters and one lone church. They represent Jerusalem, Paradise, and Noah’s Ark. Each church had so many cool features and interesting stories and legends behind it. Some things that stuck out were the pool near the “bet Maryam” (Mary’s Church) where infertile women are dipped on Christmas day and one of the smaller cave churches where women are not allowed to enter. One of the churches has a stone pillar in the middle that apparently has the story of how the churches were carved (the tools and method of construction is still shrouded in mystery) as well as the Ten Commandments carved in three languages (Greek, Geez, and Amharic). However, the pillar has been covered for centuries and the priests refuse to let researchers uncover it. Many of the churches are connected by tunnels, one of which is symbolic of hell. We walked through it utter darkness for about 3 minutes; lights are forbidden inside it! My favorite was one church that was apparently built in only one day, at the order of Lalibela’s wife who had to spend fifteen years away from her husband with no means of communication. The coolest thing about the churches was how much they are still used and how non-touristy the whole area is. There are priests and nuns wandering around the stone caves and catching a glimpse of one of them alone really makes you feel like you are being transported back in time. Many of the monks and nuns live there, in little caves dug out in the rock that looked like they didn’t have enough space to sit up straight in!
We were led around Lalibela by our quiet but secretly hilarious tour guide Getaye. It took us about a day to realize exactly how funny and sarcastic he was. He would often instruct us to do things like put berbere in our coffee, or get down into a church by jumping into the one foot deep pool. We grew very fond of him by the end of the trip and he did a very good job taking care of us. One thing Nina and I have noticed is that extremely hospital Ethiopians tend to take a special interest in looking out for us (the hotel manager where we stayed basically adopted us for the weekend, always making sure we knew where we were going and we were back before it was dark). We really appreciated all the hospitality, especially since in Lalibela we got way more attention for being ferengi. We were definitely the youngest tourists that we saw, and were often told on the street that we were “the most beautiful girls in the world.”
On the second day of our trip we took mules up to a monastery high above Lalibela. We alternated riding the mules (to be honest, not the most comfortable experience) and hiking to the top of a grand canyon-esque ledge. Everything about the hike was amazing; from the breathtaking views to getting to wander through the farms and fields of the villages that we passed along the way. I will try to include some pictures here that do all of the beauty justice! We came back and had lunch at a delicious local restaurant (with some really beautiful birds that my mame especially would have loved!).
In the afternoon Getaye took us to the Saturday market, a huge market that sells basically anything you could want: livestock, salt, oil, spices, vegetables, clothing, and other goods. According to Getaye, people travel every week from 40-60 km away, over all of the mountains and ledges, to come and sell things at the market. The market was divided into sections and it was over stimulating but so cool to walk around each section, and especially to see all of the different grains and spices. The section selling berbere and peppers was so large that you couldn’t help but to start coughing, even ten feet away from the stalls! We also got props for being pretty much the only farangi that we saw who were brave enough to enter the market scene; I think most people just stick to the churches!
All in all it was by far the best weekend we have had here yet! Besides all of the cool history and scenery (which you can tell by this extremely nerdy post that I got very into), it was fun to stay in a hotel by ourselves and “treat” ourselves to restaurant meals (none of which cost more than eight dollars). The hotel we stayed at was shaped like a “tuluk,” the circular homes with thatched roofs that are characteristic of that part of Ethiopia. The rooms had beautiful balconies and views and…. Hot water and large towels! Quite the luxurious weekend!
This weekend Nina and I left the Ethiopia we have gotten to know in Kolfe and were exposed to all that is trendy, European, and sheek about Addis Ababa (ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration). Selam left for the weekend so it was our first weekend really planning everything out by ourselves, making contact with the necessary taxi drivers and places that we wanted to see and continuously having to ask others to explain directions (there are no addresses so it gets slightly complicated!). Of course the weekend we really decide to step out on our own is the weekend that the African Union is in Addis holding meetings. This meant that most roads were closed for large portions of the day and there was hardly any cell phone or internet service. Needless to say this made planning even more of a production, and we were both quite proud of ourselves for accomplishing all that we did!! Once again, my mom’s many friends and connections in Addis really made our weekend. Nina is getting used to everyone we meet raving on about “Susan!” and loading us with gifts and favors because of their gratitude to her.
After Saturday morning time with the children we headed into the city with the help of Melak, the clinic accountant. He helped us ride our very first minibus, a true Addis experience that we would not have dared try on our own. The minibuses are these small buses that ride all around the city, picking people up off the corner and dropping them off in big areas. You have to ask where one is going before you hop on, pay the man operating the door (it costs about 10 cents) and then crowd onto a tiny seat as you speed around the city! A minibus and taxi ride later we finally arrived to Selam’s house we were very grateful to Melak and promised to buy him all the doro wat that he could eat! Unfortunately when we said this to him the taxi driver took us quite literally and got ready to bring us all to a restaurant… more communication struggles!
This is when the true cell phone fiasco began. My cell phone had run through it’s SIM card and the network was so bad I couldn’t recharge it. We tried to mime borrowing a cell phone from some of the people who work in Selam’s compound but they weren’t really so keen on the idea. We realized later (with the help of a translator) they thought we were going to steal their cell phone, or make lots of expensive calls to the United States! We finally figured the whole communication thing out and were picked up by a driver from Adoption Advocates International, as we wanted to spend the afternoon visiting the Layla House Orphanage where I had volunteered in high school. The drive to the orphanage was pretty eventful in itself (really, any drive around Addis seems eventful) as the seats we were sitting in were not fully connected to the floor of the car and we had to hold on to a strap to keep from being tossed out of the van! At Layla House we were taken to coffee by the wonderful director, Temesgen, at the Addis Ababa version of Starbucks (it even has a similar looking logo!). We got to spend the afternoon playing with babies, never a bad way to pass the time!
At night Nina and I treated ourselves to a non-Ethiopian meal, something we hadn’t had in a while! We were both really excited to try the Top View Restaurant, recommended to us by mom and also by Temesgen. We were picked up by Ermias, a taxi driver and friend of my mom. Ermias immediately treated us like we were family and we loved driving around with him for the weekend! He’s so friendly (and has great taste in music- we loved the Jack Johnson and Norah Jones that he played us) and a great resource on Addis. He even introduced us to our new favorite phrase “TIA” which stands for “This Is Africa” applicable in situations like when you are waiting for twenty minutes for a road to open, or the electricity to go back on.
Walking into the Top View Restaurant was like walking out of Addis and into some strange, farangi world. We didn’t really know what to do with ourselves and laughed at our inability to have good table manners or use a fork and knife correctly. Once again, we thoroughly enjoyed people watching and eavesdropping as we ate our yummy Italian food. We were so excited by the food that we each got three courses (yum, I had been going through ice cream withdrawal) and still the whole meal cost maybe thirty dollars. I have a feeling our week in Barcelona is going to come as a shock to both of us in the financial department!
Sunday was another adventure into Farangi land as Ermias drove us to the very trendy, upscale “Bole Road;” where all the ex-pats hang out. To get to Bole Road we drove past neighborhoods filled with big houses and high gates, trees and gardens like we had not seen anywhere else in the city. Bole Road itself has about as many foreigners on it as people who might actually be Ethiopian. The stores are very pricy (for Ethiopian standards) and the grocery store is stocked with European goods. After doing a little shopping and wandering around we holed up in the Lime Tree Café to get internet and another fix of non-Ethiopian food! We were both super tempted by the spa below the café (so cheap compared to anywhere you would go in the United States) but we figure we will save it for our end of the trip treat!
All in all it was a great weekend and we are pretty proud of ourselves for pulling off all of our movement around the city by ourselves! It was so interesting to see the way in which Addis is split up, and the separation between the upscale parts of the city and places like Kolfe, where we spend most of our time. Now we are back at the clinic for a short week as we will take the day off on Friday to fly to Lalibela, the famous stone churches that lie to the north of Addis.
Our third week here has flown by! This weekend the clinic was really full with patients, we hope due to all the advertising and promotion! Nina and I finished up the week in the after school program by showing the kids “Up,” which remains one of the greatest animated movies ever even through the language barrier.
This week I’ve been working on developing Amharic vocabulary and can pick up what people are saying around the clinic, although forming complete sentences is still pretty hard. Mostly I stick to short phrases and pigeon vocabulary. Conjugating verbs is pretty much impossible. The way you say “eat” “I eat” “you eat” “he eats” and “she eats” are totally different. I mean, totally different. We have not yet figured out a pattern to verb conjugation. Learning Amharic has really helped English class though, mostly in the way it engages the kids. Listening to us struggle with Amharic might actually be their favorite thing, and going back and forth with them on vocabulary lists is the best way to get them to focus and take risks! They love when we sit down and they can stand up and quiz us the same way we quiz them; probably that kind of teacher/student relationship is pretty rare in their schools and we can tell they are delighted by it! The hardest thing about the language is that the way you phrase things is totally different. Even if you learn the correct words, the sentence structure would make no sense if you directly translated it from English. This is also why sometimes the English that people here speak can be difficult to understand. For example, instead of saying “what time is it?” the Amharic translates it to “time how much?” The more I struggle with Amharic, the more I admire the English skills of the people here. Most of them speak English, Amharic, not to mention a third smaller regional language that is totally different from both! Hopefully by the end of 8 weeks I will be able to understand much more of what is going on around me. Right now I am best at telling people that I only speak “tinish, tinish Amharigna!” (little, little Amharic.)