From Ethiopia with Love

From Ethiopia with Love
The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Tawazawazi

The past few days have been somewhat of a blur so I will try to sum up what we have been up to and hopefully by the end of this post you'll know what I mean when I say blur. 

Not too long ago we had the pleasure of a fellow volunteer/friends company in our lovely city. Scott and I had not seen our friend since we moved to Mek'elle on August 25th so it was very cathartic to see this particular person seeing as we have so much in common and we had developed what I consider to be an initial sturdy bond since training began in June. A bond, that I thought would be perfectly ripe for developing into a very close friendship. Our visit was then interrupted by the news that this person would be returning to the States to pursue her true happiness in life. I am not revealing much about this person so as to protect their privacy and their decisions that Scott and I, although are saddened by, support wholeheartedly. We were very shaken at first but my respect for this person told me that I had to be happy because this is only way for them to move on in life. 

For their last time in Tigray, this person chose to spend it with us and we couldn't have been happier to host and see this person off. We made dinner (stir-fry, something I have been getting better at cooking since our arrival to site) and played hearts at a nearby restaurant that hosts a spectacular plasma screen TV. We talked about the good and weird times during PST and touched on the fact that this person would be missed greatly. We ended the night with full bellies and a good time. In the morning it was time to say final goodbyes and they were off. 

Having a friend leave from this experience makes me have an appreciation for the sacrifice we have made. This is a life altering experience, one that will inevitably change who you are and what you care about. Leaving, in some aspects, is not a sign of weakness but a sign of acknowledgment in what you, as a person, are willing to sacrifice or not sacrifice. The decision to stay or leave is one that has to be dealt with on a daily basis. Scott and I are very lucky because we have each other to support and confide in. We alone know what we have and will go through and that is a priceless commodity. In the end every volunteer has to ask themselves what will they gain or lose from serving for two years of their lives?

The revelation of our friend leaving us was a surprise but also another part of us being involved with Peace Corps. Friends will leave either of their own accord or for other reasons outside of their control. The only thing we can do is process the information and move on with our lives with hope that we will see our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. 

It is funny how truthful the life cycle here is in Peace Corps. As a rule, I have never taken for granted the information our training in Peace Corps has given us. A crucial part of our training, apart from all the medical and security training, was understanding the emotional difficulties that we would be subject to during service. According to Peace Corps (volunteers and staff the world over), and I am in full agreement, there will be very high high's and very low low's. We have not been in country for very long but the life cycle is starting to have a very real role in our lives. As one thing ends another begins. 

The beginning of 2005 in Mek'elle, Ethiopia (the capital city of the Tigray region) fell on Meskerem (September) 1 or September 11, 2012 for us Ferengi. The day was filled with food (injera, lamb, and lots of burbary), honey wine, and spending time with friends. We experienced the uncomfortable feeling of being full much like we would be subject to on Thanksgiving back in the states. Most of the day passed with catching up with our new friends here in Ethiopia. We spent lunch with our former LCF Biniam at his parents house where his mother served us injera with lamb and potatoes. We drank a honey and, what I assume, to be a barley drink that is unique to Tigray. We had a very relaxed time watching a Millennium concert that featured the Black-Eyed Peas along with some other well known Ethiopian singers on the television. We then left to meet a fellow volunteer, Keith, at his home of 9 months which also happens to be up the street from our house. 

Once there we were served cheddar cheese thanks to Keith's generosity. I will now make a side note: Cheddar cheese is like gold to us here. We can't buy it at the stores and Keith's daughter is kind enough to mail it to him. (Ideas for anyone wishing to send us a package.) We had a great time getting to know Keith and his compound family. We talked about Ethiopia and what it means to work here. We know that he will be an invaluable resource to us as we make our way through this journey. 

From Keith's we walked to my counterpart, Igziharia's, house. At this point we were so uncomfortably full that we had to make a pit stop at our house for a proverbial "break". When we finally arrived at Igziharia's we were instantly greeted with Tejj, a delicious honey wine and a true delicacy here in Ethiopia. We watched Ethiopian news that was translated by her well-informed and very charming husband. Then it was time to suck up our misgivings and dig in to our fourth meal in a six hour period. Normally it is considered rude not to finish your plate but I think they make an exception on holidays because once I began putting food in my mouth and I knew that I was most likely going to be sick. I quit eating and was asked if I was satisfied. Then my plate was taken and we were offered more Tejj. 

The walk home was excruciating. We had Igziharia and her husband as companions which we were grateful for seeing as we are new to the community and they had expressed general concern for our well being after dark. Once home instant exhaustion took over and we were almost instantly asleep after hitting the pillow. 

Throughout the day, as we were being bombarded with new customs, food, and a different calendar altogether, the one thought streaming through my mind was the fact that September 11 is a day of mourning for every American. As Ethiopians are celebrating and we are treated as guests among this celebration I was distracted and removed from the holiday. It felt strange to celebrate while remembering that day so clearly and what it meant for the future of our country. Thankfully, Igziharia and her family understood our distraction and offered to turn her television to BBC News or CNN so we could feel connected to our part of world even if it was for just a moment. 

This is what it has been like for the past couple of days and what it will continue to be like for the next two years. There is a certain disconnect that has developed between us and our home country, family,  and culture. We are grateful to become a part of this very unique community in this part of the world that is so different from our own but this part of lives involves a sacrifice unknown to anything I have experienced. Nothing can change our relationships with our friends and family (at least not while Facebook is involved and we have internet) but we will be living different lives for now and we will have to fill that gap once we return home.  Ups and downs. Sacrifice and opportunity. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

A New Year

Tomorrow is the Ethiopian New Year and it will be September 1, 2005. In America, in 2005, I was close to graduating high school and moving to Gainesville to start college at Santa Fe. Now I am living in Mek'elle Ethiopia (2012) with my best friend and husband, Scott. Seems light years away and yet it also feels like yesterday that I was walking across that stage in that hideous royal blue robe.

School will be starting soon here and I have already met a number of teachers I will be working with thanks to my counter-part , Igziharia. Her name means "chosen by God" and she is the vice director of my school. I can not tell you how happy I was to hear that my counter-part is a woman with authority. It is very difficult to find a woman with a higher position in administration but  throughout the country there are efforts to make gender issues a top priority. I am more excited for school to start mostly because I will finally be getting to work but also because since I haven't really had a steady schedule I am starting to feel a bit anxious. We have had a great time getting to know Mek'elle, meeting new friends, and getting used to living here but now that we are more comfortable I want to move on to something more substantial. I can't read books all day, every day.

With down time comes the reflection period. The last 12 weeks have been a whirlwind experience and I can't help but also look at the last two years leading up to this time in our lives. I came back from Zambia, got married, got a job, and began the Peace Corps process all over again. We really didn't know how tough it would be or how easy. We just knew that the path was in front of us and we had to keep going. During that time I met some of the best people I have ever had the pleasure to encounter and I took for granted the time we shared. Some of my favorite memories are going to the St. Augustine Beach and eating delicious burgers or relaxing by the Enclave Pool and grilling out on "Sunday Funday". Fourth of July 2011 was probably one of the best days I have ever had. We played sand volleyball, grilled burgers and hot dogs, and lounged by the pool with everyone we cared about. I went through two football seasons at the University of Florida. I was no longer going to the games and cheering alongside my fellow students. I was serving them. And I never realized how rowdy people can get when your on the other side. Game Days weren't the only horrors. Generally, every night at Salty Dog was a reason to bash the student body. After every 6 hour shift my legs were tired, my pants were filthy, and I had at one point yelled at one individual or taken a step further and kicked them out of the bar. I also had the money I needed to help pay the rent and friends that I could commiserate with after hours.There are too many stories from that hole in the wall that I could write a very hilarious and terrifying novel.  I had a great job, that although I sometimes loathed, made me a more confident and able person.

Thinking about the past gives me a whole new appreciation for where we are now, what we went through to get here, and what we will go through by staying here. I miss my friends and family but I know Peace Corps Ethiopia will add to our lives just as those last two years did. For now, we are setting up for a crazy two years. At least this time around we know it will be nuts.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Been a While

I realized today that I haven't posted anything in over a year. A lot has happened in this year and I don't think one post will be able to sum it all up but hopefully  I can get across what an amazing year it's been.

Right now I am sitting in an internet cafe/internet bet in Mek'elle, Ethiopia where I and my husband, Scott now live. We are TEFL volunteers in the Peace Corps and we begin working in our respective schools on September 13th or Meskerem 3rd if you follow the Ethiopian (Gregorian) calendar. Our main job is to improve English language speaking and writing skills for the teachers of our schools. My primary cluster head is called Adi Haki while Scott's is called Myweni.

We have now been in Ethiopia for three months and two days. Our first 10 weeks were dedicated to our Pre-Service Training to become volunteers and the majority of training was in the southern Arsi region of Ethiopia. My husband and I experienced a wonderful host family in Bekoji, a town renowned for their Olympic runners. In the 2012 Olympics in London a woman from Bekoji won the gold medal in the Marathon. That day was very special, not only for us because we were there, but obviously for the people of Bekoji. Their pride was something to be marveled and admired. Our family consisted of our host mother, Tigist (meaning "patience") and her husband Ato Solomon, a very successful businessman. We had four host sisters all of which were bright, charming, and energetic girls that we miss very dearly.

Along with our adopted family in Bekoji we have encountered some wonderful and genuine people here that we can now call friends. I have to give a shout out to our self-titled "Bekoji Bosses". Rachel, Nathan, Linda, Brett Chandler, Carlin, Christine, Shauntea, and Nzingha. I know that the connections we made in that small and beautiful town will last a lifetime.

During our time in Bekoji we also experienced ups and downs. Scott was inflicted with Typhoid which he got over fairly well and in a record three days. We have also had to deal with the constant stares of being a foreigner. Some children will harass us for money but most of the time the  do not know what they are saying because they think "money" = "foreigner" so patience has become a constant companion. But mostly the people here are generous and hospitable. They want to know about us and why we have come to their country. All are pleasantly surprised when we greet them in the native language of Tigray, which is Tigrinya, and tell them that we are teachers that will serve here for two years.

The training itself was rigorous and full of information. We learned about culture, food, language, safety and security, traveling, history,development, and anything else Peace Corps could jam into our brains. Language classes were sometimes all day with tea breaks in between and then some days we had cultural sessions with our wonderfully brilliant Language and Cultural Facilitators. We had Medical trainings and administrative sessions while getting to know our way around and learning to live a completely different lifestyle. Needless to say but PST is an animal in and of itself. One that I am grateful to have gone through but equally grateful to be done with. (And I did it twice!)

Now we live in a very comfortable and safe neighborhood in the capital of Tigray. We enjoy spending our time cooking and meeting new people and just getting used to life here. So far it has been a good transition after training and we are just trying to process all that we have been through during our first three months. We look forward to school starting and thinking about all that we can accomplish personally and professionally in the two years we will be living here. More to come soon! Miss you America.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Higher Education

Note: I didn't study journalism in college so this is mostly for my own interests. I call it my "independent research".

Higher Education

By: Jessi K. Axe

Being an undergraduate in the state of Florida requires a lot of time spent outside due to our very favorable weather. Spring Break could be every week and, yes, we all have tans. However, we also spend a great deal of time in all-night study sessions for finals, group projects, and senior thesis papers that will decide our futures. We have our fair share of fun but we also work hard to get all we can out of our universities. There is also a culture in Florida that surrounds our state schools that, while begging us to ridicule our rivals mercilessly, at the same time unites us as a community and a state. But, without proper funding, many students who contribute greatly to the celebrated culture will be unable to attend college and some will face great personal and economic hardships in order to finish their degrees.

Currently, there have been extensive discussions about financial education reform in an effort to balance national and state budgets. On the national level some of the cuts will be directed towards higher education taking away the ability to access Pell Grants during summer sessions and increasing tuition cost across the nation. Most state universities require students to take a certain number of credit hours during the summer terms. The University of Florida included. A good portion of students and their families who are already financially burdened by the weak global economy and have accrued tuition and living debt will not be able to afford taking out personal or federal loans and will not be able to pay out of their own pockets. Many heavily burdened students have part-time jobs that take away from critical study time or work during the summers through paid internships in order to pay tuition, but without federal and state aide, it’s not enough. In the State of Florida alone the Governor has proposed cutting $340 million from college and university education and research but will not cut from Florida Bright Futures, a state wide scholarship program for outstanding students.

But then what about the job market for those about to graduate? Even if a student were to excel academically there are no guarantees that there is a job waiting for them so they can pay off their student loan debts. Some post grads are turning to public service jobs like Teach for America or the Peace Corps in order to gain experience, travel, defer payments on their loans, and avoid the agonizing search for a job. Maybe some intentions aren’t as noble as they seem but it still raises global awareness for developing nations so it can’t be too bad, right?

Some of these questions are better left answered by the people it most affects like my friends Ravi and Kaitlyn. Their stories are not so different from a lot of students. They’re facing the abyss that is the U. S. job market and looking for alternatives if their initial goal cannot come to fruition, while also making plans to pay off their loans.

First, I and my husband met up with Ravi who is a first generation American. We met as anyone in South Florida would meet their friend, at the beach. Ravi presently lives back home with his mom and tutors in the heavy sciences while he is waiting to hear back from several dental schools he’s applied to. Before graduating from UF in 2010, Ravi was in the application process for the Peace Corps. His plans included two years of service then on to dental school but due to some family circumstances he denied his service and decided to move back home and started applying to grad schools.

After waiting about twenty minutes on the warm sand I receive a call and its Ravi saying that parking is a nightmare so it will be a couple more minutes. Twenty more minutes later and we see Ravi absentmindedly strolling towards the surf and looking in the opposite direction I told him we would be. Ravi is what you describe to other people as “that friend”. You know the one who is always doing something regrettably silly but is sharply intelligent and has some redeemable qualities. He is also very “American” as he describes himself compared to the rest of his family. His use of the word “dude” is as versatile as it is extensive.

Being a recent college graduate and facing an uncertain future, I wondered what his biggest challenges have been coming home after graduation. As he is standing in front of us wearing bright yellow gym shorts, which he intends to swim in, he contemplates the last year and what my question might be driving at. Referring to the change in geography and social atmosphere he replies, “You realize when you enter the general population that it’s not the same thing…I appreciate what UF gave me because I am way ahead of the curve…” and as he trailed off in this stark vein you could literally feel the warmth radiated by his initially jovial manner wane away, and a much more serious, almost resigned expression noticeably wax over his face.

When I bring up the job market and grad school he becomes gradually flustered but manages to keep a kind smile on his face. “I’m going to keep applying if I don’t get in this time.” He pauses then in one breath says “Like, damn it! I did four years at UF, I prepped for the Peace Corps…I just might not be able to do a ‘plan b’.” But then in another breath resumes his optimism by saying “What I’m doing here [tutoring] is a good thing. I’m helping students. I’m good at teaching and I want to keep doing it in some capacity.”

His future plans involve starting a private practice where he can also perform dental work for children in developing countries and promote public health. But most of all he wants to be able to take care of his family and eventually his future wife. “I’ve matured more this year because of what I’ve had to go through in this process. But I didn’t think I was going to be here.”

I first met Kaitlyn at her current job as a leasing specialist. For the last four years Kaitlyn has worked several jobs; waitressing, working in retail, and also giving art lessons. Her major is Graphic Design which she calls a “broad major, like economics.” Her ideal plan involves attending Notre Dame for her Master’s degree then becoming a creative director. But she also has a “plan b”. “…I’m trying to be realistic…and maybe I’ll get a job here in Gainesville and work for this company, so working in the office has been a good starting off point. But I’m hoping people will always pay for creativity.”

Her manner is typical of a young woman who grew up near the beach. She is easy going and has no trouble chatting with someone she doesn’t know very well. She is well spoken and reminds me of someone that should be on television. As we sat outside the coffee shop that evening I noticed that everyone surrounding us was either a student or a teacher. Living in Gainesville as a post graduate has desensitized me to how many people rely on our education system because I’m surrounded by it. Nearly everyone in Gainesville relies on the University in some way or another. And people are becoming more and more concerned with where we are headed. Kaitlyn adequately describes the current fears of students by adding, “Scholarships have decreased and tuition has increased so that’s my biggest concern…I’m already having a tough time taking 12 [credits] and working 30 hours a week. It’s just exhausting.”

The sun had gone down and the wind was picking up its pace. Kaitlyn and I were starting to feel a bit chilly so we were both glad the interview had reached its end. But before we parted ways I had to ask her if she had any advice for incoming freshmen being that she is a student well adapted to university life, and she replied in a cautious but calm tone, “Stay on top of all their changes because a lot of things go unnoticed. Communication [between students] is crucial.”

Education at all ages plays a vital role in our nation’s success. Scholarships and Grants create motivation and opportunity for students and reward them for their hard work. A system that rewards merit and intellectual accomplishment will benefit generations of young people trying to thrive in this country. Decreasing scholarships and funding for research programs will limit a student’s access to higher education, and we will find ourselves behind in innovation and productivity against countries that believe education is one of their vital resources. But the good news is that we can still turn things around, eventually.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

We have arrived

After thoughts on arrival and subsequent journeying-

The flight was long but in retrospect went by very quickly like everything else seems to be going. It has been more than two weeks and it feels like we have done so much.

Zambians are the friendliest people I have ever met. (sorry Southerners) Everyone is constantly smiling and greeting one another. Our first week was not short of greetings in the three major languages: Bemba, Nyanja, and Kikaonde.

My fellow trainees are some of the most interesting and loveable people. In short I am in love with my intake and we all get along swimmingly. So no worries on the making friends front. The Peace Corps is a special group of people and we thrive on the camaraderie. I am very proud to be a part of this amazing group of people.

We play football all the time when we aren’t in class and when it isn’t pouring or so humid outside we can’t breathe. You would think during the rainy season some cool weather would come in once and a while. The weather here sometimes makes me want to peel my skin off. And I am from Florida!

The language I am learning is Kikaonde which is spoken in the North Western Province of Zambia. Our group has come to calling ourselves the NWA ( the North Western Alliance). We wear bicycle gloves to show our allegiance.

The LIFE Program is a lot more than I thought it would be. We have a wide range of projects we can work on from school clubs to tree nursery. I am excited to be posted and see what my community wants and is willing to work on with me.

Life here really is not bad. I live in a clay and mud hut with a grass roof and I sleep sort of soundly. By night I study with my head lamp inside my mosquito net covered mattress that is laid skillfully on the floor. In between studying I text Scott to see how his day is starting off. The time difference does not see to be an issue.

My host mother’s name is Ba Rona Tembo or as I call her “bamaama”. I have three siblings- Joshua, Cayonmbo, and Combe. They are very well mannered and love all my little gadgets. Joshua giggled with glee over my camera. (Pictures will be posted soon.) Last Sunday on my short wave radio we listened to the BBC and heard some 1930’s Latin music.

I am loving Africa but I do find myself thinking frequently of home. So let me know how you are. Love you guys.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When will I get better at this?

So lately I have not been able to get rid of this neck pain I got about a week ago. I have been stretching and yes, cracking my neck whenever I can but nothing is working.

I told this to my Pap today when we were taking my brother to the eye doctor and he said that it's probably stress. He said that sometimes our brain has the ability to shut out the things we don't want to confront but it will show itself at some point. He said aches and pains come from the build up of stress that accumulates when we don't address our worries.

My biggest worry is Zambia. I leave in a week and a half and I have been trying to save my worries for the plane. I feel I can endure a little bit more pain until I can freak out on the aircraft. (Silently of course, I don't want to be arrested.) I just do not want to confront what I fear most, just yet.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fist blog post ever,

I have four weeks left before I venture to Africa. At this present time I have not really thought about what my reaction will be to leaving everything I know behind me.

The Peace Corps is the job I want. For me it is my dream job. I am excited and terrified at the same time. But I think this would not be worth anything if it did not frighten me to the point of wanting to piss myself.

As of now I am spending as much time with family, friends, and Scott as I can. The only reasonable thing I feel I can do is take everyday as it comes. This includes being in Zambia as well. Flexibility will be my only ally in the coming months.

My job is with the LIFE (Linking Income, Food, and the Environment) Program. I am told by some volunteers already serving in Zambia that this program is grade "A". I will get to work with children and teachers as well as farmers and environmentalists. Possibilities for learning seem endless, almost as if two years is not enough.

For now I have nothing of interest to talk about. My mind is all over the place. Life is just exciting right now.