Fasika

Have I ever mentioned what a big deal Easter, or Fasika, is in Ethiopia? It’s actually difficult for one to overstate the importance of Easter to Orthodox and Protestant Christian Ethiopians. For 55 days (that’s nearly 2 months!) over 50% of the people in Yirgalem go into vegan fast mode. Many of the devout also fast each day until after attending church at 2pm in the afternoon. And I thought I was doing okay when I went vegetarian for Lent one year. Despite probably not being the healthiest decision and making it extremely difficult to plan programs in the afternoon, this Lenten fast makes for quite the celebration come Easter. 

Weeks before Easter, homemade berbere and mitmita spices, are carefully dried and ground into their final powdered state. Beans are dried for gulban– a boiled bean dish topped with spicy mitmita– served only on Good Friday. Sheep and goats in all combinations of brown, black and white, get their own special market at the center of town. Roosters await their slaughter and prevent anyone from sleeping in to a decent hour. Tella, Tej, Kenito, and Birs, local drinks all, are prepared for consumption with barley and honey; the alcoholic versions being allowed to ferment for several days to weeks. Students and teachers slowly stop attending classes to attend to the feast. Cows, with their long sharp horns, start appearing outside of siga bets. Excitement and anticipation flood the air. Invitations to eat flood in. Travel outside of town becomes expensive and nearly impossible.

The day before Easter, the slaughter begins around 4 o’clock. Chickens, sheep, goats, and cows throughout Ethiopia face a fast and blessed death. Kids forget that 2 minutes ago the compound sheep was their best friend. Onions are chopped and mixed with spiced butter. Chickens are cleaned and quartered. Intestines are cleaned and stuffed. Families keep a vigil over the food (or maybe go to church) until it is time to eat at 3 am on Easter Sunday.

On Easter, forget the bunny, it’s all about chicken. Dorro wat and buna rule the day with sides of raw meat, cheese, and tej, honey wine, to wash it all down. Kids parade around compounds in their new clothes, bought just for this day. Families, dressed to impress, walk through town to visit other families. Drunk men stagger to their next watering hole. I make my way to five different houses to partake in all of these treasures for the final time. Friends insist i eat more and more and more until I tell them I have a chicken baby in my belly. Text messages come in celebrating the risen Christ in a mixture of broken English and Amharic. Around 8pm I fall into my bed not prepared to move an inch until the morning when it will start all over again.

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BAMM!

It’s that time again, folks, Blog Against Malaria Month– affectionately known as BAMM! within the Peace Corps community. This year I was in Addis for a meeting on the actual World Malaria Day, but some students and I decided to celebrate the day yesterday by making posters to put around two school compounds. These committed students drew pictures of families going to health centers and listed the symptoms of Malaria and advocated for mosquito nets through creative houses with beds covered with nets. Check out some of my future artists in the making:

 

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BAMM!Check out more awesome Peace Corps Malaria projects across the globe at stompoutmalaria.org.

 

With A Little Help From My Friends

While in Butajira a couple of weeks ago to give a training to a newer group, I sat in on a session one of our staff members facilitated on development. The session was a discussion where he asked the group how they felt about foreign aid after being in Ethiopia for 6 months. By the end of the session my brain was bursting. Listening to the group talk I felt so experienced, but also so cynical. Being in Ethiopia, one of the world’s largest receivers of foreign aid, for over a year and a half now has altered my opinions on aid completely– for better and for worse.

Development aid is wasted on a regular basis– especially by the likes of big organizations like, dare I say it, USAID (which also conveniently funds my own project, so hey, take that for what it’s worth). From my soapbox here, I’ve seen multiple, really expensive projects which have failed to bring desired results. Income Generating Activities where people take the money and run. Books given to schools which are then locked away to be covered in dust and darkness. Teacher trainings where not one teacher actually implements the material. Does that mean we should stop spending this money, though?

Foreign aid is also a huge misconception in the United States which doesn’t help the situation. Many people think the US spends too much money on foreign aid, when “the US has enough problems within its own borders.” If you had to guess right now the percentage of the US budget that goes to foreign aid what would you say? In reality the total spent on (non-military) foreign aid is less than 1% of the total budget. That’s everything: from the Peace Corps operating budget to PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). So the question is: should we cut this aid– which includes live saving measures like HIV/AIDS medication, Polio Vaccinations, and food aid to thousands of currently malnourished children– just because some of the projects fail and waste money? Of course it’s really easy to say, “Well just cut the programs that aren’t working!” but that’s a lot easier said than done from thousands of miles away. How does one determine which programs are successful and which are not when you don’t live in that community?  

Here’s another question: if certain governments suck should we stop giving people in those countries access to life-saving medications or food? Is it these peoples’ fault they were born into a country where the government keeps the money and misdirects crops that are grown in the country? Are they condemned to die from these treatable diseases because of their government’s policies?  Should the people in other countries be given more aid just because their government happens to align with the right (rich) countries? So yeah, that was more than one question, but these are real questions we should be asking of ourselves and of our governments. 

In my opinion– and remember, my opinion only reflects me, as the disclaimer says, not the US Peace Corps or the US government– foreign aid should definitely not be cut, but the emphasis needs to be placed more on developing the skills and capabilities of the people in the countries that want/need help, regardless of political ideologies. Behavior change is hard work, but of course it is! Lalibella wasn’t carved in a day! There’s a reason people do what they do, whether that reason be tradition or culture or religion, and it cannot be changed over night– and probably shouldn’t be! What I hate is seeing these large organizations come in and throw money around just for the M&E numbers. How many teachers attended a 16 hour training? How many gallons of oil did we give out? If we spend x dollars, x people are better at English in Ethiopia. Sure that formula sounds great, but it doesn’t actually work. Rather, the focus should be on HOW we effect these people. Are more university students abstaining or using condoms to prevent HIV? Are these teachers now using English in the classroom instead of Amharic? Are these peoples’ lives changed for the better?

Development is about people and making peoples’ lives better, whether that may be by teaching teenagers about HIV through soccer or setting an example for local girls by standing up to sexual harassment. Simply throwing money at the problem isn’t the answer. Money provides temporary relief which is certainly needed, but it’s like trying to seal a crack in a dam with rubber cement and just hoping it holds. Reapply if necessary. Without the money the cracks just get bigger and more lethal, but instead of focusing on the money we should be investing in people. Training these people how to fix the cracks or even how to build better dams. One trained farmer from Idaho teaching another, local farmer sustainable ways to grow his crop yield, so that he can feed his family and maybe take some of the rest to market for a profit. Creative and active teachers that can demonstrate improved learning and teaching strategies and can empower teachers and students to do the same thing. A telecom person from, I don’t know, New York, that can finally explain to EthioTeleCom how to improve their network.

But this strategy requires something of us. Each one of us needs to invest in our fellow human beings, whether it be at home or abroad. We’ve spent enough time isolated from each other. America here, Africa there. We should be trying not to judge or change traditions to be more like ours, but to help ease suffering and make all lives more joyous and just a bit easier.

I’m glad I can be a part of an organization that invests in people through people. Peace Corps Volunteers spend enough time “doing development work” to know that one person cannot change the world, but that if one person can effect one or even five other lives for the better, then the time and effort spent was worth it. Because that’s what it’s about. Not meeting quotas and spending money, but meeting people and sharing and growing and hoping that at the end of the day you helped make the world a little bit brighter.

Holidays Galore

Since Thanksgiving I’ve made it through a grand total of 6 major celebrations (including my birthday) here in Ethiopia: Thanksgiving, my birthday, non-Orthodox Christmas, non-Ethiopian New Year, Gena (Orthodox Christmas), and Timket (Orthodox Epiphany). At times it seems a bit ridiculous to have so many holidays– and to celebrate so many of them twice–but most of the time I feel really lucky to be able to celebrate each of these days in such a special way. Here’s a brief run-down of how I spent holiday season 2006/2013.

Thanksgiving was one of those times where you’re reminded just how alone you can get at site. All-in-all the day was a normal one here in Ethiopia. The dry, dusty air made it seem less like Thanksgiving, but each holiday spent away from family and friends is tough, no matter how busy you try to keep yourself. Hand-drawn ‘thank you’ turkeys with English Club were a bit of a respite with my Student English Clubs. Trying to explain a turkey as a big chicken and how a hand can represent that turkey was a bit lost in translation, but was certainly entertaining. 

My birthday and (ferenji) Christmas gave me time to take a mini vacation from site. I spent nearly a week with some other amazing volunteers in the ever exciting capital, Addis Ababa. It was a great week filled with fabulous food (fro yo, cinnamon rolls, enchiladas, Lebanese, cheese plate), friends, and fun. On Christmas Eve some of us went to a Christmas Eve carol service at the local Anglican church, where, surrounded by people of all different nationalities, it truly felt like Christmas. Doing something so normal, so American, like singing “Silent Night” with candles shining, in English, was enough to bring a tear to my eye. Lots of Skype time with the family, including my brother and his new fiancé, Rebekah. In all, a needed and well-spent break.

As New Year 2014 approached, I was fast asleep in bed. On New Year’s Eve I had a Grassroot Soccer practice with some of my favorite kids. We were going to do sparklers, but the local suk was out, so I just celebrated by making dinner and watching a movie. On New Year’s day I made greens in hopes that it would bring me health (or is it money? preferably both). 

Gena is always a fun affair on my compound. Unlike most volunteers, I live on a compound with two families, which means double the fun on holidays. After spending about a week on the compound with us, a sheep was killed right outside of my door, and the entire compound took part in its delicious demise. No dorro wat this time: all sheep and beef. Loads of coffee and locally made non-alcoholic beer. At night it was either the amount of food or the slightly undercooked dullet, intestines, that left my belly unsettled and not quite ready for the next day’s leftovers. 

Timket (Epiphany) was celebrated in grand style for 3 days here in Yirgalem. Last year I spent the festivities in Addis getting drenched with a holy water hose at what could have been an Ethiopian Christian Rock festival. This year my counterpart and I walked about a kilometer out of the main part of town to watch the parade from the baptismal font to one of the (six) local churches. Everyone was dressed in their finest habesha libs, including myself, dancing and singing as the parade made its way to the church. When the parade finally made it to the church it seemed like half of Yirgalem was there with it. Smushed together, everyone excitedly danced and sang, as the priests chanted over the loudspeaker and dust swept everywhere. 

Some days were spent alone, others with Americans, and others at work, but it’s holidays are always a special time– a time to remember family and friends, new and old. I haven’t experienced my last holiday in Ethiopia yet, but I must say these were some memorable ones.