Kids for Kids: Technology Blog

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Kids for Kids T-shirts

Technology: Kids for Kids

I have been living and working in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the past two years and as my service crescendos into its apex, I must reflect on something that we are all familiar with, something that we as humans are obligated to use, something that has changed the face of this earth and something that will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of countries like Ethiopia: technology.

Technology is a fickle thing. We usually love it or hate it; there is not a lot of room to be partial about our technological gadgets because it will either be the most remarkable tool we have ever used and it will improve our lives ten-fold or it will be an extreme disappointment and make us never want to invest in technology again.

Kids for Kids is an innovative educational project that combines community-prioritized topics with creativity and the paradox of using advanced technology in rural Ethiopia. This project is comprised of ten songs on the various topics of: HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Hand-washing, Exercise, Environment, Nutrition, School Pride, Cheating on Exams, Gender Equality and People Living with Disabilities. The title of this project, Kids for Kids, is an oversimplification of our project, but it is also a great summary of what the project means for the future of Ethiopia. This project will be distributed in schools and will target the newest generation of Ethiopians as they prepare to take the reins from the older generations.  

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“Green Screen” This is so Genet can add videos behind the kids while they are singing.

You might be wondering how we were able to record, produce, film and edit ten music videos while living in rural Ethiopia. This country is constantly plagued with power outages, loss of cell phone network, water shortages and an overall harsh environment for electronic items. Over the past two years we were able to persevere and overcome these difficulties to finish this project on time and produce high-quality music videos.

My counterpart and best friend here in Ethiopia, Abadi Abreha, started this project over four years ago. He was a teacher at the local high school and he became a director at a primary school in rural Hawzien. He was motivated to take on a project like this because he caught numerous students cheating and he wanted to address it through music and through creativity rather than looking past it or scolding the children.  He paid out of pocket for the first three songs and tried to gain support from NGOs in town and the local government. He was unsuccessful in getting any additional support for this project, so he was discouraged and he stopped working on it.

A few years later I moved to Hawzien as the first Peace Corps Volunteer  in town where I was eventually introduced to Abadi. By this time Abadi had stopped his work as a teacher and a school director and now worked at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. He told me about this project and he told me how he wanted to focus on the children of Ethiopia because they were the future of his country. I remember watching the hand washing song with my jaw on the floor and butterflies in my stomach. This was exactly the project that any Peace Corps Volunteer would kill to have. This was a community-owned, innovative educational project that focused on high-priority topics and pressing issues tailored to rural Ethiopia. Here was a man who put his own money into the project. Here was a man who worked six days a week at the bank and still found time to focus on education and prioritize the future of his country. Here was a man who wanted to teach kids behavior changing messages and wanted to focus on students to evoke the necessary lifestyle changes to improve the quality of life here in Hawzien. Needless to say, I jumped on the chance and started contemplating which grant I would apply for to fund this project.

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Abadi and I at the Kids for Kids premier in Hawzien

In the beginning stages of the project everything was enigmatic to me. I didn’t know how we were going to develop the messages. I didn’t know where or how we would be recording these songs or who would be filming the videos and editing the songs. I didn’t know who the singers would be or how we planned on training them. I didn’t know how expensive this project would be or if it was even eligible for grant money. It was an exciting time, but our future was opaque.

We started with the grant proposal and that seemed to reduce the ambiguity of the project as we broke down the numerous barriers that stood in our way. We developed the project for months before we submitted the proposal. We met with various local organizations and associations in order to develop community buy-in and support. After a long process we submitted the grant and started to plan the next stages of the project.

Abadi and I gathered materials and did a lot of research in order to develop the messages and content for the ten songs. He was reading books that were written in Tigrinya and produced by USAID about ten years ago. I was scouring the Internet for updated material and I was asking other Peace Corps Volunteers, doctors, professors and former employers for assistance. I missed having unlimited wireless Internet access during this process, but the Internet that we have in Hawzien is pretty good considering that we live in rural Ethiopia and we get the Internet through the cell phone towers. Research is definitely more convenient on a college campus that is wired with fast Internet and a plethora of additional resources and abstruse knowledge.

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Cover for the Kids for Kids Teacher’s Guide

After we had all of our content for the songs, Abadi and his brother, Yirga, wrote the Tigrinya songs based on the research we conducted. We then translated the songs back into English and developed an innovative teacher’s guide.  This comprehensive teacher’s guide is over 50 pages and has the lyrics in English and in Tigrinya as well as a participatory discussion outline for each song. There are pre-video and post-video discussion questions and there is also an advocacy component to the book. This book is designed to inspire students to take charge in their local community and to advocate for the messages from the songs.  This project focuses on behavior change and more importantly it will pave the way for the future of innovative education in Ethiopia.

One of the most amazing discoveries I made during this project was how Abadi created the music for the songs. This process shows the ingenuity of Ethiopians and the technological barriers and advances that make this resourceful mindset possible.

When I asked Abadi how he created the music for the project, I was surprised at his response. Not once have I seen Abadi play a musical instrument. Not once have I seen him write musical notes or convey to notion that he was capable producing music, but he is one of the most naturally talented musicians I have ever met and I am going to tell you why.

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Greeting people in Hawzien

His process begins with leaving the chaos of the town and heading out into rural Ethiopia with one essential tool: a fully charged mobile phone.

He first thinks about the content of the song and asks himself: Does the topic need a fast or a slow tempo? Does this song need to cause excitement or serenade listeners and hone in on the message? Will this song need a Tigrinya beat? (Which sounds like a heartbeat.) Will this song need a progressive reggae beat? After he decides on the genre of each song he “sings the music with (his) mouth and records it on (his) mobile.”

Stop reading this blog and take a moment to imagine a simple tune, a simple song. The catch is that it has to be original, it can’t be Katy Perry or Lil Wayne, it can’t be Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd; it must be created by yourself. Okay, go!

Were you able to think of an original song or did one of your favorite tunes come screaming back into your head? I know I had some difficulty in doing this.

After Abadi records the tune off the top of his head, he goes home and listens to it and writes the lyrics based on the research and discussions we had. He then records the lyrics on his mobile phone with the music that he created earlier.

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At Alex Studio in Mekelle recording some of the songs

After Abadi has the music and the lyrics together on his mobile phone he provides the training to the singers and discusses each song one by one. First the singers take Abadi’s original recording home and listen to it. They then progress to record themselves on their mobile phones and return to Abadi for some additional training and follow-up. After the singer’s mobile recordings and in-person training sessions are up to par, they are recorded by Genet’s camera. Genet is Abadi’s wife and our camera operator and music video editor for the project.  She converts the songs to a CD and brings it to the recording studio, which is three hours by public transportation.

The studio listens to the music and makes it into an actual track. This is an amazing skill as well, to be able to compose music based on someone’s voice. The singers come into the studio and listen to the music that originated as Abadi’s voice and has now developed into an actual recorded track. They then record on top of the new music and this gives the singers a sample. They once again take this sample on their mobile phones and listen to it over and over again. They make the necessary adjustments until they are ready to return to the studio to lay the final track. After the final track is recorded, our team is ready to move on to the music video recording!

What a process! This is something that is unique to a developing country and it is something that is unique to Hawzien. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I have seen a lot of Ethiopian ingenuity, but this was one of the more impressing examples of an Ethiopian genius at work.

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Abadi and Salam in the recording studio for the first session.

Technology brings us together and at the same time, it is what separates worlds. There are some fundamental differences that separate countries like the United States from countries like Ethiopia that are directly linked with technological advancement. After living here for two years I am proud of this technological-based project and I am impressed with my Ethiopian counterparts who have taught me to think outside of the box with the technological tools that I have on hand. This project has bridged the gap of two cultures and meshed it into one collaborative effort to educate the children of Ethiopia.

I am set to finish my service in just a few weeks and I will go back to America. I am very proud of this project because not only was it initiated by an Ethiopian before I came to this country, but it will be continued by Abadi and his team after I leave. Peace Corps Volunteers always talk about sustainability, but it is something that is extremely hard to achieve for numerous reasons. I am proud to say that Kids for Kids will persevere and will continue to touch the lives of thousands of Ethiopian children for many years to come. Thank you to those of you who donated and supported this project throughout its development and a gigantic thank you to Abadi Abreha who has been my best friend, my project partner and who is now my brother. He exemplifies what an Ethiopian counterpart should be and he showcases raw talent and incredible ingenuity that the beautiful country of Ethiopia possesses with his achievements.  

I will be compiling media to make a highlight video that will show you parts of all ten songs and will give you more insight into this project. I am collecting the media right now and I plan on finishing before I leave this country! I will post to Youtube. 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

More Photos:

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At the Peace Corps office with Greg Engle- Country Director and Dan Baker- Director of Programming and Training 

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Abadi and I presenting the Kids for Kids project at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Abada, Ethiopia.

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Kids for Kids premier in Mekelle, the regional capital of Tigray, Northern Ethiopia.

 

Let’s run. Let’s run really far. Let’s run for Ethiopia.

Why running in Ethiopia is cool.

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An Ethiopian Student runs alongside me as I go out into rural Ethiopia!

The question that I will continue to get asked, “Ben, why would you ever run that far?” has been lingering in my subconscious psyche for almost a month now.  As I gear up to run what will be the furthest in terms of distance, (282km or 175 miles; almost 7 full marathons) longest in terms of time, (almost 30 hours of total running time, given that we keep an average pace of about 10-minute miles) most strenuous in terms of physical exertion (Scott Jurek, ultramarathon guru, describes ultramarathon running as, “a sport stuffed with long stretch’s of agony, that I belong to a small, eclectic community of men and women where status is calibrated precisely as a function of one’s ability to endure. Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and my fellow ultrarunners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers. Chafing, black toenails and dehydration are just the rites of passage for those of us who race 50 and 100 miles or more.”) and unquestionably the hardest in terms of mental endurance, (This is considered the hardest barrier a runner will have to overcome during a long excursion) I feel an overwhelming sense of tranquility and aspiration.

“Why would you ever run that far?”

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Mary and I running on a main road in Ethiopia.

I have been running since I was a little kid; running at school, racing on the track team and playing soccer for the vast majority of my life. I used run in high school to stay in shape for soccer and keep my body looking good and healthy. I would run in college for similar reasons and I stepped it up and did a few half-marathon races (21km or 13.1 miles) before I graduated. I had the fire inside of me, but I was never able to pull myself away from my first love of soccer long enough to put the time in to train. I am also naturally a sprinter, armed with fast twitch muscle fiber that allows me to kick it into high gear in a short period of time. On the other hand, I can say that I was not naturally blessed in terms of long-distance body type or running form. I had always talked about doing a marathon, triathlon or even an ironman race, but back then it was a dream and not even close to being a reality. After moving to Ethiopia about two years ago, I initially I tried to focus on soccer. This country loves runner and loves soccer. There was only one reason that I was not able to sustain a soccer player’s lifestyle in Ethiopia. The fields are full of dirt, rocks, and sheep and are extremely uneven, it was a perfect venue to hurt an ankle or a knee if not careful. I have realized that I am unable to play soccer at any pace other than 100%, which is troublesome for my legs because of the injury threat. I played for a few months when I originally got into Ethiopia, but I also suffered my fair share of injuries and set backs because of the conditions. I had to change my type of exercise, but to what? There are no gyms in this country, at least not in any of the small towns.

A lot of PCVs do a P-90X or Insanity program. These are workout videos that you do inside your house and with your computer. I tried is once and it was not for me. I don’t like these programs because there is no accountability, there is no one there to tell you to push harder, except the obnoxious host that is consistently yelling at me to “dig deeper!” while I am working my ass off and then ten seconds later he will contradict himself by telling me that I am doing a good jog while I am just sitting there resting. He didn’t know what I was doing, nor did he care!

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I am finishing the Accelerate Ethiopia Half-marathon just outside of my site, Hawzien, Ethiopia.

I needed another form of exercise that would give me the freedom to be myself and to break the chains of repetitive workout videos without the risk of injury from a high-intensity sport like soccer. This is when I officially turned to running. Running became my lifestyle over the last 18 months. I have been able to completely submerge myself into running and I can’t start to tell you the benefits of running. I started running as a child for fun, then I progressed to the health benefits of running to motivate me and now; now I run to find peace. I run to push my mind and body into a state of “flow” where I am completely in tune with my surroundings, my body, the earth and the small thoughts that enter my mind and then leave without a trace. I can’t say that I achieve that state of mind every time I run, but it is what I long for. It is the remedy that I need to feel liberation, it is the satisfaction that exists within running, and it is the sense of euphoria that keeps me coming back for more.

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Ultramarathon running legend Scott Jurek, my best friend Binyam and I at the finish of the Accelerate Ethiopia Half-marathon outside of Hawzien, Ethiopia. March 2013.

Running to me is simple and complex at the same time. I have been enthralled with books like, “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall and “Eat and Run,” by Scott Jurek. I have met and ran a race with Scott Jurek himself her in Ethiopia. I have also met and ran with Gebre-Exghabier GebreMariam, this year’s male 3rd place Boston Marathon finisher. I have been living and working in a country that breeds some of the best long-distance runners in the world and has one of the best running cultures in the world. I have been lucky enough to live in a small town where I have access to, in my opinion, some the most beautiful scenery in the world. I have experimented with eating meat only on special occasions, only a few times a month. I can tell you how many times I have eaten meat in the last 6 months and it is significantly less than any other time in my life. I have been focusing on getting my nutrients from other sources, as much as possible in Ethiopia. I plan on advancing this practice when I go home in December.

Running is not just an exercise, or a past time. It is not just to stay healthy or to assuage stress. It is not just a means to an end for me. I don’t train for a race and then drop off immediately following the conclusion of the race. Running is a lifestyle. It is my lifestyle.

I am a strong believer that sports unite people. We have seen in the history of our beautiful world that wars literally stopped because of sporting events such as the Olympics, The World Cup and The World Championships. I am a strong believer that running can unite people and can unite cultures in one organic form of communication, the steady sound of feet gently pushing down against the earth’s surface. There is the yearning to run inside all of us, once we get those legs moving it open up new possibilities for enlightenment. It opens up opportunities to build relationships between enemies, between rivals, and between complete strangers.

I have experienced some amazing running moments here in Ethiopia and I have been moved by some of the interactions that I have had with the rural Ethiopian farmers and their children. I have run with kids as young as 2-3 years old and elders as old as, well they looked over 100 years old! I have jogged with groups of women, groups of little schoolboys, I have scampered up and down rock trails with teenagers that were much better runners than I, I have lead a parade of over 35 rural Ethiopian children through the Ethiopian countryside for several miles, and I have ran with some of the world’s elite here in Ethiopia. I have completed three half-marathon races since I came to Ethiopia 2 years ago. I have gone on countless runs with my girlfriend, who has taught me to pace myself, eat healthy and to always remember the four most important words when running: safety, strength, patience and health. I have gone on many runs alone; alone with my thoughts and with my struggles, successes, stresses, and my subconscious intellectual patterns. I am a runner. I live to run and run to live, as many Ethiopians do. I have had my weekly mileage top out at 42 miles in a week, 95% of those miles I had at least one Ethiopian runner along side me.

The Idea: Let’s run really, really far!

Ryan Plourde, one of my good friends and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, came to me with an idea that would change the end of our service and would help shape the memories that we share with other volunteers, each other, our communities for many years to come. We had discussed doing a project that would unite all of Tigray, the region that we both live and serve in as Peace Corps Volunteers. Tigray is located in Northern Ethiopia. We had discussed doing a project centered around music, education, art, sports and even running, but we never thought that we would decide on a run that would span 282km/175 miles and would unite over 10 communities along the way. We talked about this project ambiguously for several weeks and then one day, it was official, we had Peace Corps approval to run from my site, Hawzien to Ryan’s site, Alamata.

Thus, the TigrayTrek282 was born.

We are planning on running from Hawzien to Alamata over the time-period of a week. (October 31- November 7, 2013) We plan on stopping in eight towns along the way to promote our running lifestyle, to conduct an educational session with local kids on a wide array of topics such as: HIV/AIDS, environment, nutrition, school pride, tuberculosis, gender equality, people living with disabilities, exercise and sports, hand-washing and exam cheating, and to raise awareness about imagine1day and the amazing work they do.

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Ryan and I planning the TigrayTrek282!

The partner and recipient of the funds that we will raise is an NGO called imagine1day. (www.imagine1day.org) This is an NGO that works in the Tigray region and focuses on creating equal educational opportunities for all of Ethiopia’s children. 100% of the money that we raise will go toward their efforts here in Northern Ethiopia. This money is not going to be used to administration costs, for unnecessary purchases or for any ambiguous items. This money will go strait into the educational programs that imagine1day has already establish and it will also help expand and innovate the educational interventions that imagine1day carries out. Please look them up and see all the amazing things that they do here in Ethiopia!!

All of that being said, this is a run of a lifetime. This is a culmination of a lot of different ideas, lifestyles and motivations all coming together in the last couple months of our Peace Corps service. This is a run that is for a good cause, yes. This is a run that will bring in much-needed funding to the children of Ethiopia. This is a run that is focused on developing Ethiopia’s youth and giving them the tools to combat the issues and changes that the future is sure to bring. But it is also important to realize that this is overall a run. An event. A masterpiece. An event that will bring two cultures together through RUNNING. This is a sporting event that will make history and will be talked about for many years to come. This is a project that two Peace Corps Volunteers have engineered to cap off a 27-month service in Ethiopia. This is venue for friends, family and other Americans, even other countries to get involved in a meaningful project that has extraordinary obstacles for the participants and will bring about a story that will move people. This is a run that will be made into a documentary in order to ensure the longevity of the relationships, friendships, kinships and connections forged over the next 11 weeks. Yes, this is an amazing event that will pit each runner against himself or herself, while simultaneously uniting everyone as a team!

With the support of everyone back home, we are confident that we can finish the entirety of the run and we can finish it on schedule. We are full of zeal and we are ready to take on any impediment that stands in our way.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will.”- Mahahma Ghandi

I wanted to share a short story from a few days ago: Running in Ethiopia is cool. I was running out into the rural area outside of Hawzien. I went about 3 miles out and I turned around to return back to the town. A little boy that was walking along the road joined me immediately and started to gallop alongside me as if we had known each other for years. We talked in the local language the entire run. He told me that he was running into town to help his extended family slaughter a chicken and prepare for the holiday that was the next day. He told me that he lived about 5 km from Hawzien. We happily charged into Hawzien together, laughing and smiling the whole way. The next day I went on a morning run around 6am. I was heading out on the same road as I had run the evening before. Right on the edge of town I spotted a little boy walking toward the rural area. As he turned his head around I immediately recognized him as Abraha, the same boy that I had run with the day before! We greeted each other and started out on our second run together in less than 12 hours. We ran about 3 miles out and he broke off the road to go to his family’s house. He was going back to help his family carry food and other things into Hawzien for the celebration. I was running two-a-days for training purposes. He was running two-a-days out of necessity. We were united through running. Running in Ethiopia is cool.

Please help Ryan and I, and help us help the children of Ethiopia through imagine1day’s educational programs. Any support would be amazing: donations, sharing our story, and visiting our websites. Thank you for reading and thank you for your continued support throughout my service.

To donate to our project please go to:

http://www.crowdrise.com/hawzeintoalamata/fundraiser/benjaminmorse

To join our Facebook group, please go to:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tigraytrek282/403732079726950

To read some more blog posts about running in Ethiopia Please go to:

http://benjaminmorsepeacecorpsethiopia.wordpress.com/2013/03/

http://benjaminmorsepeacecorpsethiopia.wordpress.com/2012/06/

Watch our video on YouTube:

Thank you! Thank you for reading. Keep running, I know I will.

OUR ROUTE:Image

Friends Abroad- Second Edition

April 19, 2013

 

Friends Abroad- Second Edition

 

I wrote a blog almost a year ago, to the day, about friendships that are developed while travelling, studying or volunteering abroad. I recently lost one of my best friends that I met while studying abroad in Australia, who passed away unexpectedly on April 3, 2013. Drew Swan was an amazing person with amazing insight on life. His personality was contagious, as we influenced people from all walks of life on a daily basis. It was as if he knew something that all of us ‘common folk’ didn’t know. He was always a beat ahead of everyone around him and he was always ‘that guy.’ Have you ever met a person that could have control of a room of twenty people within seconds of walking in? Without effort, this was Drew: charisma, dashing good looks, genuine soul, and great friend.  

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Drew and I in our ‘skydiving’ pose in New Zealand. 2009

 

I stumbled upon this blog entry from last year and liked it so much that I wanted to add to it and re-post a second edition.

 

Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer gives me a unique opportunity to develop friendships and foster truly genuine relationships. I have always had a theory about developing friendships while travelling or while being in situations that calls for individuals to think outside the box. This is when we as humans are the most venerable and the most susceptible to new situations and new relationships.

 

I had a friend ask me about my friends before I left for the Peace Corps, but he didn’t ask about all of my friends, he only asked about my friends that I met while travelling. He questioned me on how close I could possibly get to these people after knowing them for only a short period of time. I have known my friends from home for a significant part of my life; we have the unbreakable bond of location and sense of place attached with Fort Collins, Colorado. We also have elementary, Jr. High school, High school and even university together. These bonds are strong and will always be strong. What about the people that we meet when we travel? How can become such close friends if we only have an infinite amount of time to make a connection? Are these friendships real? Are they deep enough to invest some of our hard to obtain trust into? Or are they going to just walk out of our lives, never to be seen again?

 

I actually have a few ideas about this topic and I have done a lot of thinking about it because this subject is very fascinating to me. When I studied abroad in Australia I learned how to fly alone. This meaning that I no longer had my family 5 minutes away from me, I was on my own. But are we ever really on our own? We have people all around us. (Unless you are going to pull a Bear Grills and head off into the wilderness alone.) I found that I gravitated toward people that were looking for the same thing as me, an interim. These friendships are usually formed very quickly and are usually formed very strong.

 

When you are travelling you are in an unfamiliar world and the safest place to be is with other people who are in the same boat or even better to befriend the people that call your “unfamiliar world,” home.  When you have no family, you are quick to form bonds that will fill in the need to belong and to be accepted in a social situation. Once your physical needs are taken care of and you are safe, the next thing you need is the feeling of belonging to a social group. This is where travelers will click automatically.

 

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My petri dish friends at Romelia Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica! 2010.

I have experienced this all over the world; Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, and countless international trips with my family over the years. When I went to New Zealand with one friend, we had to make friends throughout the whole trip in order to make the trip successful. These are people that we might not have talked to if we were back home. I call this the Petri dish effect. When you are travelling every social encounter no matter how brief will be put into a Petri dish so it will foster and multiply quicker than ever! Under normal circumstances this relationship might not have gone anywhere, but in the travelling Petri dish, the relationship fosters and takes root deep within each of us.

 

In the context of Peace Corps it has even more twists and turns associated with it. We are all going to be very similar, yet very diverse people. We all had our own reasons for joining the Peace Corps and we all have our own ideas and perceptions associated with our dreams. We are already in a Petri dish before we even leave the country. When we get into our host country we click and we form bonds that are unbreakable. We are a team and we are all going through training together, learning language together and getting sick together. We are all here to support each other through the maze that is ahead of each of us. All of our mazes are going to be different, but sure enough, we can understand and instruct our friends through their mazes. 

 

When you get a group of people that identify with a cause it intensifies the Perti dish theory. We all act as one entity to accomplish goals and to more forward as group. We fail together and we succeed together. We possess a knowledge bank that is full of past experiences and different interpretations of the same information. Because everything is new to the traveler the part of the brain that processes new information is always working overtime. We learn how to decode mass amounts of information in a very short period of time and make decisions based on intuition and spontaneity. This also enables us to open our minds to new relationships and new ideas. When a person has the opportunity to learn and discuss new ideas with a stranger they will tend to gravitate toward similar ideals and strengthen relationships. When your mind is in this social mindset, it tends to want to agree with people and open the social channel rather than to disagree and risk closing off any social potential that potentially exists.

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Group 6- Environmental Volunteers! Peace Corps Ethiopia Petri-dish friends! 2011-2013.

 

Simply when you travel you will form relationships with like-minded people that will be deep and genuine in a very short period of time. Here in Ethiopia I feel that I am close every volunteer in my group. There are differing levels within that initial connection maybe because of access or time spent nurturing said relationships. These friendships will continue to grow over the rest of my service and will become life-long friendships.

 

So to address the discussion in the beginning of this blog about how friends from home are different than travelling friends: they are not. A good friend is a good friend no matter where and when you meet them. It might happen over the course of growing up in your hometown or it might happen over the course of years, months, days or even hours, but the bottom line is friends are like family and friends can get you through anything. I love all of my friends back home and I miss the hell out of you all!!! I also am very happy to have all of my friends that I have met while travelling this very tiny world and I hope to one day come and visit every single one of you. I can not finish without mentioning my Peace Corps friends, you are a special breed and we will forever have a special bond based on experience.

 

Recently, my close-knit network of friends from my study-abroad experience in Australia and my closest friends here in Ethiopia crossed paths in order to deal with tragedy. One of my best friends, Drew Swan, passed away unexpectedly on April 3, 2013. I had studied with Drew at Griffith University in the Gold Coast, Australia.  He was the glue that held our Aussie family together that consisted of three other American guys, a couple American girls, a Canadian, a Norwegian and a heap of Aussie blokes. We all go to know each other in this travel petri dish I like to call the Aussie Experiment.  An experiment it was!

 

I had the pleasure of spending over four months with Drew in Australia and I also was lucky enough to have him all to myself as we braved a 10-day vacation to New Zealand together. There I was able to get to know the Drew that not a lot of people did. He opened up to me quickly and I opened right up to him. As if we needed a stronger travelling equation to make us both more vulnerable to one another, we left the “comfort” of Australia and went to a different petri dish called New Zealand.

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Drew and I at the top of our 6 hour hike- Routeburn, New Zealand. 2009.

 

We went skydiving, hiking to glaciers, flipping and totaling our rental car, seeing wild animals, singing songs, drinking and partying (not while driving), over-documenting everything we did, talking and conversing like we had just met. We had the trip of a lifetime and no one will ever take that away from us.

 

Drew was a best friend. Drew was a travel friend. I only saw Drew in Australia, New Zealand and when our Aussie family had a reunion in Colorado, my home state. I did not grow up with Drew. I did not go to high school with the kid. I travelled with him and “studied” abroad in Australia. I had a nickname for the kid: Inertia. Inertia: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force. Drew was my external force. For those of you that met him and knew him, he had an implausible ability to inspire people to change course and to dream on. After my trip to New Zealand, and after we flipped and totaled our rental car, (walking away without a sctratch), my course of life was forever changed. Inertia.

The Aussie family is a unique group of people and everyone had their vices, but I love each and every one of those guys and gals like family. When Drew passed away I had to turn to another family here in Ethiopia. I turned to my Peace Corps family; my girlfriend, my best friend and countless other volunteers that live and thrive in my Ethiopian petri dish. I also talked to my friends back in my hometown of Ft. Collins and my other friend who is also serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. (Also from Ft. Collins, childhood friend)

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My girlfriend, best friend and sister in Hawzien, Ethiopia. 2012.

I have realized that friendship and family are not defined by time, location or experiences. They are defined by love, compassion and that quintessential, organic bond that exists between two human beings. I love my friends back home, I love my Aussie family and I love my Peace Corps friends.

 

Our friends define us and shape who we are.

 

Drew Swan- you will always walk the path of life with me and I will always remember who you were to me. A friend. A petri dish friend. Drew, it was a pleasure to know you and it was a pleasure to walk this earth next to you.

 

I love you. Rest in Peace.

 

Dedicated to: Drew (Inertia) Swan (April 10, 1988-April 3, 2013) 

Born to Run

Born to Run

 

Ethiopia is arguably the best running country in the world, alongside Kenya. This comes at no surprise to me as I have been living here for 17 months and I have seen how passionate people can be about running. I have seen the necessity of running on a daily basis for some people and I have myself, engaged in running as a form of relaxation, integration, meditation and serenity.

 

I recently ran a half-marathon with ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek and New York Marathon winner, Olympic runner and one of the top distance runners in the world, Gebre-exgabiher GebreMariam. His wife, Worknesh Kidane, an inspirational female Olympic runner, was also present on this once in a lifetime day. This has inspired me to finally write a blog about my experiences running here in Ethiopia. I have run two half-marathons, a 10km race and a 5km race here in Ethiopia and I am looking forward to every opportunity that presents itself over the duration of my stay here.

 

Running to me is not simply a physical form of exercise, it is not just a break from the day; running is a lifestyle and a life choice that can help shape individuals lives. I have seen some amazing runners here in Ethiopia and I have experienced a deep sense of place associated with running that resides in the hearts of over 80 million Ethiopians.

 

It was during summer camp last year when I first got the chills after experiencing the intrinsic running culture instilled in the soul of this country. We were watching a replay of the 10,000m women’s final of the 2012 Olympics. The campers had no idea that it was a replay and did not know the outcome of the race.

 

We started the replay near the end of the race. It was tense in the room full of all the counselors and all the campers. Everyone knew what had to be done by the Ethiopian runners; beat Kenya. The top four runners near the end of the race were comprised of two Ethiopian runners and two Kenyan runners. Tirunesh Didaba and Worknesh Kidane were the two Ethiopians representing a nation of runners.

 

The campers started to clap and cheer as Didaba was slightly ahead of the other three runners as they neared the dramatic conclusion of the race. The order went: Ethiopia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Kenya. This race had the world in a trance as these four women carried the weight of their respective countries on their shoulders. Then it happened, Didaba pulled away. It was as if she had been holding back the whole race and finally decided to run. It was as if she was being held in the air with her legs in fluid motion and then set down on the track and given the freedom to run. She took off.

 

The campers erupted into screaming and clapping. They embodied the sense of running that ran wild in their blood all within this moment. I remember getting the chills and found myself screaming toward the replay that I had watched five minutes earlier. The two Ethiopian women finished first and third in the race and did indeed lift the county of Ethiopia on their shoulders.

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Abadi, Binyam, Ryan and Mary after the half marathon!

 

The moments that followed the race were the moments that will be forever encapsulated in my memory. The campers all stood up on cue and sang the Ethiopian National Anthem. The American Peace Corps Volunteers stood in amazement, inspirationally watching the scene unfold. We were so over-powered by the moment that none of us knew what to do, or how to react. One of the campers told us to sing the American National Anthem and so we did. We sang the Pledge of Allegiance like we were at a baseball game in America. It was an emotional venture for everyone there and it will forever stand out in my memories. I still get butterflies thinking about it!

 

That was the moment that I knew Ethiopia had stirred something inside of me. That was the moment that I knew I would revert back to running. It is a basic human action that defines so much and explains so much about who we are and how we interact with the world. I find myself at peace when I run. I find myself more connected with the world when I run. I find myself living and learning from the present moment the more and more I run. I truly was born to run.

 

Ethiopia is an extraordinary place to go on long runs. I live in an area that resembles the four corners of the United States. It looks like Moab, Utah and Southern Colorado. It looks like Arizona and New Mexico. It is something so acquainted, and yet so extraneous. The history and the culture are intertwined with the running experience here in Ethiopia. I am running paths that farmers have used for thousands of years. I am running with Ethiopians who have been living and working this land for generation after generation. The aesthetics are breath taking and the emotions are incommunicable.

 

I run five to six days a week for about 6-10 miles into rural Ethiopia. I leave my town around 5-5:30pm and I always return after sunset. There is something dreamlike about sunrises or sunsets that can transform a person. I run on the same dirt road to the same village that is roughly 4-5 miles from my town each day. I am a friend of all of the suk (store) owners along the way and I know most of the people by now. I pass people walking to and from the town of Hawzien, carrying food, baskets, wood, children and goods from the market. I pass countless donkeys, cows, sheep and goats. I run over rocks, through animal poop and over bridges. I smell the fresh air and feel the sun weaken on my face as it drops behind the rock-mountains. I am alive when I run and I am alive in a new sense when I run in Ethiopia.

 

I make it a point to greet every single person that I pass in his or her local language. I will greet priests by using one form of the greetings and I will greet countless children by using another form. I have received slow claps as I run by a group of women who are surprised to see a ferengi running, but are genuinely happy to see me. I hear “Isoka,” and “Iso,” as I run by the farmers. That phrase means, “be strong,” in Tigrinya and Amharic respectively. The children will run with me as I pass, sometimes for miles. I have had children run for the entirety of my excursion just for the opportunity to talk to me. I have had children, little boys and girls, running with me that had no shoes on and torn cloths. I have had students from the high-school run with me while carrying their books and trying to practice English. I have had rural farm boys run alongside me with a stack of hay on their shoulders. I have even had an elderly woman run with me for about thirty seconds, laughing and smiling the whole time.

 

The country that is full of runners: Ethiopia. The country that has running at the center of the soul: Ethiopia. The best running country in the world: Ethiopia.

 

Majka Burhardt- Great choice for the half-marathon trail race. See you again next year!

 

I can truly say that I was born to run.

 

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Scott Jurek, Binyam (My best friend, who beat me in the race with no training) after the Accelerate Ethiopia Half Marathon.

(Put on your running shoes, or take them off; whatever your style: GO RUN!) 

Peaks and Valleys

Peaks and Valleys

When I came to Ethiopia 17 months ago, I had no idea that I would be summiting some of the highest emotional mountains I have ever experienced. I also was not aware that I would be hitting rock bottom more times than I can count. It is true what they say about the Peace Corps Volunteer lifecycle. When life is good it is magnificent, and when it is bad it is atrocious. Now that I understand this process I can honestly say I am used to it and I expect the unexpected. But when you expect the unexpected and you get the result that you didn’t anticipate, it can lead to reactions that are blown out of proportion.

I received a text from another volunteer the other day and it read, “Today was an amazing day. I woke up and we had water! I did laundry, washed my dishes and took a shower all in the same day!!” Yes, that is an awesome day, I can agree with that, but is that what my life has really boiled down to? The answer is yes and it has to be yes, we learn to adapt and measure our experiences using the scale that we have become accustomed to over the last year and half.

Today is 17 months in the country of Ethiopia for Group 6 Environmental volunteers. We left Philadelphia 17 months ago on a journey that will truly define who we are as human beings and how we interact with this ever-changing global world. We have been here long enough to understand the ups and downs of a PCV and to anticipate these changes. Everyone deals with these rash changes differently, as everyone internalizes and processes information differently.

I have learned to live in the present moment here in Ethiopia more than any other time in my life. I have learned how to anticipate the changes that are associated with a normal week here in Ethiopia. This can consist of several amazing days followed by a day or two in which one does not leave his or her house even to buy bread.

I sometimes wonder why the changes are so inconsistent and are so dramatic. I have been thinking about this for quite some time now and I have come up with a few ideas on the subject. Peace Corps volunteers experience a large amount of pressure/stress from themselves, from other volunteers, from friends and family back home, from potential employers, potential graduate schools, Peace Corps staff, Ethiopian counterparts, health concerns, safety concerns, cultural concerns, irrational fears, rational fears and many other sources. This is a lot of information for one person to process at one time, especially when these things pile up and happen simultaneously. This causes some of the reactions to be blown out of proportion because of an implied bottling affect. Some people tend to hold in emotion until it builds like a pressure cooker. I have seen a few pressure cookers go off during my time here in Ethiopia; it is not a pretty picture.

I took a look at my own experiences with my ups and downs during my time here as a PCV and I noticed some trends. I noticed that when I was up, I was touching the sky. I was so high that I couldn’t even see the negative stress that was bogging me down just a day or two before. Just like when I am on an upturn, when I am on a downturn I find myself hitting rock bottom, becoming blind to the positive vibes that I felt just a day before. Why are our reactions so strong in both directions? How does one mitigate these outlying reactions and reduce the severity of the feelings?

What has worked for me is simple: living in the present moment while simultaneously exercising an empathetic mindset while rationalizing internal reactions with the notion that everything is impermanent and will change. When I am faced with a situation, positive or negative, I am forced into an immediate reaction that I usually have no control over. Having a strong presence of mind and being able to take a step back during these situations gives me an advantage over these irrational retorts.  I am not saying that I do it every time, because that would be fictional, but I am saying that I have improved my response time in relation to such conditions.

Living here in Ethiopia requires one to be able to think on their feet and not over-react to the moments that unfold right in front of them. Practicing this technique takes time and takes a lot of hard work. I have not been able to perfect it and I have not been able to use it in every situation, but I can say that it has softened the intensity of my peaks and valleys. When confronted with a situation that might draw a strong reaction I try to stop. When I am able to stop, I have time to think. I ask myself what is happening? What am I doing? What do I want to do with the present moment? How should I react right now? This process happens very quickly within my mind, but it usually helps me slow down any initial reaction so I can process all the available information and make a conscious decision, within the moment, about how to react.

Embracing things as they are and understanding why things happen the way that they do is essential for peace of mind. This has worked for me here in Ethiopia; maybe it will work for you too.

We have less 10 more months here in Ethiopia and I plan on embracing each and every peak and valley that is presented to me. It is not an easy notion, but it is something that helps maintain a balance that is a necessary part of life.

Organic. Anthropological. Occurrences.

Organic. Anthropological. Occurrences.

 

We are all human and the interconnectivity that we share is multi-facetted and unique. I want to share a story about a moment in which I felt alive; I felt alive as a person and as an imperative part of a community. As many of you know I have been living in Ethiopia for over a year now and I have been in my small town of Hawzien for one year. I have hit my halfway point here in my Peace Corps journey, meaning I have one more action-packed year ahead of me. Life is full of unplanned, organic interactions that define who we are as human beings. In this arena there is no room for corruption, there is no room for counterfeit emotion or planned outcomes. This is what makes life so beautiful. Every moment has something different to offer each person, depending on how in tune they are with themselves, their surroundings and the interconnectivity with other people. I was recently invited to a party; a celebration. I didn’t know what the occasion was, but like most Peace Corps Volunteers would do, I went anyways. When I arrived around 7pm to a local hotel, honorably called Ethiopian Hotel, I walked into a group of administrators, politicians and government workers. I was a little confused at first why this particular group of people had gathered that evening. I found the agriculture office table and was invited to join them for the feast. As I walked into the poorly lit, open-air venue, I noticed everyone looking at me and I could hear people whispering my name as I walked by. “Binyam, kab America metsiu.” (Ben, he came from America) Some people greeted me, people that I don’t know by name, but I recognized their faces from one meeting or another. I could smell the sheep wot (sauce) that was recently prepared for the celebration and I could feel the anticipation suspended over the venue. I sat greeted my cohorts in traditional Ethiopian style. We all shook right hands and embraced our right arm with our left hand to show respect. We greeted several times, repeating the same questions in different ways. It seems a little redundant at times, but I do enjoy this part of Ethiopian culture. People are genuinely interested in how work, family, friends and your health are doing. It could not have been more than ten seconds before a beer was put in front of me and I was asked to join them in drinking. I obliged and the conversation started to buzz again. We covered topics so quickly it was as if a child had control of the remote for the dialogue that ensued. A few moments later an army of women hurried out of the kitchen with plates full of injera, offhandedly dropping one at each of the 23 tables. They seemed to be working like a well-oiled machine as they waltzed around robed in traditional dress. Each of them proudly displayed their Tigray style hair, which was clearly braided for this special occasion. They all seemed to disappear simultaneously back into the kitchen where they came from. We continued to techawat, or “play,” as we waited for the wot (sauce with injera) to come out.  The same women came parading out of the kitchen yet again with pots full of delicious, tender sheep’s meat, which was cut into small pieces and cooked in a variety of spices and juices.  We received our portion of the meat and the feast began. We all promptly told each other to eat, as is an Ethiopian custom, and we all dug in. When there is food in front of a group of people, the dominant conversation consists of mostly subjunctive phrases. “Eat!” “Drink!” “Play!” “Are you full?” This is always exciting, but stressful at the same time. This particular night, I ate before coming to the celebration because I did not know about the party until 10 minutes before it started. I was already full, but I had to attempt to eat and I had to eat as much as I humanly could. I was finished eating and went to wash my right hand. In Ethiopia, similar to many cultures across the globe, you only eat with your right hand. This is because you wipe your ass with your left hand. (During training I used to sit on my left hand during meals to remind me not to eat with it.) By this point I has been at the celebration for over an hour and I still did not know what it was for. I asked my counterpart and he explained that the administrative head was leaving his assignment for a promotion in a nearby town. We were losing our mayor, the big boss, to another town and I found out about it at his farewell party. It took me a few moments to process the news. Ato Twelda (Mr. Twelda) was a tall, dark man, with grey stubble and a strong presence. He stood at least a head taller than most Ethiopians and instinctually demanded respect. He was a charismatic man who had lived in the town of Hawzien for 11 years. He was the head of administration for 4 years. As a Peace Corps volunteer, we rely on relationships and relationships alone to get work done. I was a little nervous that he was on his way out, because he had been supportive of me as a volunteer and he understood Peace Corps as an organization. The night proceeded into a movie that encapsulated the man’s life and highlighted all the work that he did in Hawzien over the past 4 years. It was an interesting experience. I was lucky enough to gain some insight about Ethiopian Politics, in which I respectfully decline to share in this blog. I want revert back to the human aspects of this ceremony. There was a point in the end in which the party broke off into speeches about Ato Twelda. Many highly respected individuals spoke about this man, mostly thanking him and wishing him luck in the transition ahead. I sat in silence until, without my knowledge, my hand shot up in the air. I think I was as surprised as everyone else around me. It felt as if some outside power came in and forced my hand toward the stars. Of course, I was called on immediately and asked to speak. I remember thinking to myself as I got up and walked toward the microphone, “What are you going to say Ben? Bowanet? Really? Really?” In Ethiopia, the people will clap as you walk up to the front of the venue. It resembles something close to a slow clap meant to build the anticipation as an individual walks toward the front. My heart was beating out of my chest, I felt like Bugs Bunny as he tried to talk to Babs Bunny. It was not because I was nervous, no. It was because I caught myself off guard by my uncontrollable right hand that felt the urge to move from resting position into full action, catapulting my brain and I into a somewhat unpredictable situation. I got to the front of the venue and was kindly handed the microphone by the female MC that had just moments ago spotted my rebellious right hand waving in the back row. I greeted the crowd in Tigrinya and started my short speech in Tigrinya. Here is roughly what I said:

 

“Kamay amsikum? Dahan a dakum? Igzabihar yimesgin. Dahan iye. Binyam yibahhal, nay hade amet ab Hawzien geyre. Naty Tigrinya be’tami nishtay iyu, silize, inglizenia yihisini iye. (How is your evening? How are you all doing? Thanks be to God. I am good. My name is Benjamin and I have lived in Hawzien for one year. My Tigrinya is very little, therefore I prefer to speak in English.)  I wanted to take a moment to thank Ato Twelda for everything that he has done in Hawzien while I have been here and for being so supportive. He was always open and friendly when I came into his office to meet him and he always helped support me with the projects that I was working on. I want to tell a short story about the time that I really felt at home in Hawzien. I was walking on the street and I had walked past Ato Twelda without noticing him. He called my name and I turned around to see him smiling. I walked up to him and greeting him in the middle of the street. He asked me how my work was going and if I was enjoying Hawzien. We had a short conversation and then went our separate ways. That was the moment that I felt at home in Hawzien. Ab ze yinibir iye. (I live here.) and I am happy to call Hawzien my home. Thank you.”

 

The crowd erupted into a roaring clap as I handed the microphone back to the trusty MC and proceeded back to my seat. The slow clap began again and I was shaking hands as I walked back to the table I so badly wanted to be at. I was greeted like a conquering warrior returning from battle by all of my agricultural coworkers. I sat down and was overwhelmed with the feeling of spontaneity that was coursing through my veins. I felt as if I was part of this close-knit community, a subset that was sunk deep within the fabrics of the community of Hawzien. The best realization is that I am part of that. This culture has a sense of unity that I have not experienced anywhere else in the world. The night went on and the dancing began. I was sitting in my chair, in the back of the venue and I was watching about thirty people dancing. I looked through the crowd of performers to see two small girls dancing in a room that sat behind the main area. They were both dancing to the same song, in the same beat and with the same emotion as everyone else in that place. I was blown away by the chemistry that was so naturally displayed between everyone present in this moment of perfection. I have experienced this several times before. Teamwork. Unity. Family. This culture is so welcoming and works together very well. There are setbacks and there are things that I don’t like about living here, but in these moments, I forget about anything that is bogging my mind down and I set myself free to experience this unadulterated moment. This is why I live here. This is what I love about Ethiopia and this is why I will come back to visit this country.

 

I can’t wait for my family to come visit me in three weeks; to experience this feeling that is somewhat of an enigma. It is hard to put into words. Tangible experience is where people really learn.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

I want to leave you with one more thing: come visit me.  

Three Amigos Poem

Three Amigos- Oct 26, 2012

There are three amigos,

Who all have strengths.

They all excell,

But go to different lengths.

Binyam is the musician,

He is always playing music.

He has a natural ear for notes,

And doesn’t focus on the lyrics.

Abadi is an innate poet,

And enjoys to write the words.

He always comes up with ideas

That no one has ever heard.

Benjamin is a mix of the two,

Playing music and writing lyrics.

He is always getting better,

With no need for heroics.

They write as they drink suwa,

They discuss about humanity

They dance and sing,

They talk philosophy.

No topic is left untouched,

They are always learning.

They learn for fun,

They possess the yearning,

To move forward with ideas

Advanced thought is the notion

They always question life

Which seldom causes commotion.

They are in tune with each other’s thoughts,

The mix of irreplaceable ideas

Brews in the melting pot.

Some people consider them outcasts,

They say they are different

Others say philanthropists,

Which says they’re magnificent.

The three amigos will never stop discussing,

They can’t turn down the ideas

That just keep coming.

They are doing great things,

And will change this earth,

The question is only,

When ideas give birth,

Do they wait around to explain?

Do they wait on the majority?

Or do they run with the wild ones,

The ones with authority.

When you are young, wild and free,

You cant be stopped.

These amigos are three

And they wont be stopped.

They are destined for greatness,

Only a thrown will do.

There is only one more question,

What about you?

What about you?

 

This is a poem that I wrote about my two best friends in Hawzien. Binyam and Abadi.

Friendship is universal. Respect is universal.

 

Abadi (Right) Binyam (Middle) Eating Tihilo- local barley dish!

 

Abadi (Left) Binyam (Right) Drinking local Suwa.

 

Everything is impermanent

Everything is impermanent. Everything changes.

 

I will be honest; I was in a slump for the first week or two being back in Ethiopia after an illusory trip back to America. It is an interesting thing, taking a trip home for vacation. Everything was so familiar, and yet so surreal. I can now say that I have recovered from the reverse culture shock, coupled with the 16-hour lay over in Frankfurt, Germany on my way back to Ethiopia. I will tell this story, because I told my dad that I would write a blog about it, and well I think it is worthy to at least be included in this one.

 

Adabi and I, reading some poetry and enjoying the sunset in Hawzien. This was right after I got back and these guys took me out of town to enjoy a beer and good company.

 

I left Denver, after some heartfelt farewells from the family and friends, on October 3, 2012. This was exactly one year after I arrived in Ethiopia for the first time. I was trying to enjoy western culture as much as I could for the last 24 hours in the beautiful country of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I indulged in those three basic descriptions that define who I am as an American. I took the late flight from DIA and landed in DC at 1230am. It took me an hour to catch my shuttle to the Hilton Garden Inn. I missed it the first time because I was reading Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, on my newly purchased Kindle. I was so amazed with this new reading technology that I talked to the driver of my van and told him that I was going to a different hotel, not noticing that he was clearly wearing a name take that read, Hilton Garden Inn Courtesy Driver- Jose. When he came around the second time and I told him where I was going he just laughed and told me to get in. I made it to the hotel, without my checked bags mind you, (They were checked all the way to Mekelle, Ethiopia) and I walked up to the desk. The man sitting there was a large and in charge African-American. He greeted me with a friendly smile and the warmth of a gentle giant. I asked him if there was any food open at 230am and he told me I could have my go at any of the frozen meals in the tiny store adjacent to his position. I went over and grabbed a TGIF Hot Wings box and a Budweiser. What is more American? He told me that he couldn’t sell me the beer because it was too late. Clearly seeing that I was disappointed at the lost of my delicious adult beverage, he changed his mind and told me to, “bring it over here son.” So I did what any self-respecting 24-year-old would do and I grabbed two bottles this time. He laughed and wrote down what I took, obviously avoiding the computer system that would give up the time of purchase. I thanked the man and headed upstairs for my last American meal, hot shower, TV, amazing bed and air conditioning system… Or so I thought it would be my last.

 

My flight was set to leave DC at 1130am. I woke up and hit the shuttle bus after a delicious American continental breakfast of muffins, pastries and fresh orange juice. I rode in the shuttle with an ex-army gentleman that was clearly still drunk from the night before, or possibly from the morning. It was an interesting conversation to say the least. I do have a lot of respect for our armed forces and military families, so I will abstain from belittling this gentleman. I arrived at the airport just before 10am and headed to the Ethiopian Airlines desk. I walked up to the desk, noticing that there were about 7 or 8 people standing there ill at ease. I walked up to the lady and attempted to check in. She informed me that the ticket counter was closed and that I was too late to board my flight. This moment changed the next 10 days of my life. I was at the counter at approx. 10:03am. She informed me that the counter closed at 10am. Really lady? You are going to stand there and tell me that I don’t have enough time to go through security and get to the plane that I can clearly see out the window. If I had a baseball, I bet ya I could hit the plane from here. But, you are right; I can’t possible make it through security in an hour and half. This is when I realized that my bags were going to be lost, potentially forever. All the American goodies that I was bring back from this magical land were going to be lost. I had a pay-as-you-go phone from Wall-mart that conveniently had 4 minutes left on it. I called my father who took it upon himself to rebook my flights. Somehow he could do it over the phone quicker that I could do it at the Ethiopian Airlines desk. What does this say about the “best” airline in Africa? Don’t fly in Africa. Ok, I am just kidding, but honestly? So I did, once again, what any self-respecting 24-year-old would do and I went to the bar. I sat and drank beer, ate some scrumptious chicken fingers and watched the Ethiopian Airlines plane that I was supposed to be on sit there. It sat there until the scheduled departure time and like the lady said, it left on time. Oh wait; actually it was delayed for 3 ½ hours. I sat at watched this plane sit there on the runway for almost 5 hours. This is after they wouldn’t let me on because I didn’t have enough time to make it through security. Well I got on my flight to Frankfurt, Germany that took off at 5pm and headed toward Europe instead of the direct flight to Addis. Off for another adventure I guess.

 

I landed in Germany and it was still dark outside. I really had no concept of time. I felt the main character in Fight Club because I was not sure where I was, what day it was, or what time zone I was in? We got off the plane and I asked a woman what time it was. She responded that it was 6. I hesitated, but then I had to ask her, is it six in the morning or six at night? She laughed and told me that it was the morning time. I didn’t really sleep on the plane ride over and my mind was still high up in the clouds. I had a 16-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany ahead of me. What to do? What to do? I have a great idea! I am going to get on the public train and get lost in Frankfurt for the day! Perfect! I got a map, exchanged some US dollars for some Euros and headed out of the airport. I can officially say I was in Germany/ Europe because I got my passport stamped. That is the criteria for me. You have to leave the airport. What did I do in Germany? Well it took me about 20 minutes to figure out which train ticket to buy/ platform to go to/ direction to go/ stop to get off at? But I eventually got it figured out and hopped on the next train into Frankfurt. It was about a 20-minute ride into the city, but damn, it was beautiful. The transportation blew me away. It was amazing to compare to what we have in the United States and I could not even pretend that I could compare it to Ethiopia. Ha. That is a joke. A train that travels over 300 km/hr; No way. I made it to the city and pulled out my new camera. I bought a Nikon D3100, DSLR, when I was back in America and this was my first real time to use it. I walked around and ate some delicious German sausages and once the time became appropriate, I drank some German beer. I took pictures of churches and went into a WW2 museum. That was an interesting experience. I walked along the main river and across a walking bridge. I got Internet in McDonalds and ate my first Big Mac in almost 4 years. It didn’t count though I ate it in Germany. I had some good conversations with some Germans; who at first thought that I myself was German. Must have been the blond hair and blue eyes? I enjoyed my time in Germany, although it was short. I rode the train back to the airport. I had not really slept in the last 24 hours, so I was really out of it. I ended up passing out on the train and missed the airport stop. I woke up, as the train was pulling away from the airport in the opposite direction. I started to panic, but I was too tired to really comprehend what was going on. I got off at the next stop and transferred to a train going back to the airport. I made my flight. I was finally heading back the Ethiopia.

 

I was home. I was back in Ethiopia. The problem was my bags had not made the journey with me. It would be ten days before I would see them again, but it was a small miracle that I got them back after all of this. Ethiopian Airlines didn’t know where they were the whole time; I wonder what adventures my bags went on without me. I got one back while I was in Addis and then the other one was found at the office in the capital of my region. I went into the office asking for my bag and the women told me that she didn’t think they had any luggage there. I walked around until I found my bag in the back, under a desk. She had to call Ethiopian Airlines in Addis to confirm that the bag was mine, even though I pulled out my keys and unlocked the luggage locks that were on it. I finally got my bag back! Complete with all the amazing things I brought back from America.

Everything is impermanent. I was about to make it back to Ethiopia and now that it has been a few weeks since I made the trip, the story seems pretty funny to me. It shows that you need to remember that you only have control over the present moment and you can’t live in the past or focus on the future or you will miss the moment that is happening now. I have come a long way since I left the United States over a year ago, and going back to Colorado was a good reality check and a good indicator of how much I have changed. It also showed me that my friends and family is just fine in the US without me and that their love and support is what keeps me here in Ethiopia. Some things never change. Family is family; friends are friends; and an American Hamburger is an American Hamburger!

Binyam and I singing and enjoying the sunset in Hawzien.

I started this blog about three weeks ago, when I was in a bit of a slump. I wanted to wait to post it until I came out of the slump, or at least gave it some more time. I can now say that I have adjusted to life back in Ethiopia. Everything changes. Everything is impermanent. My best friends Binyam and Abadi were the ones who really pulled me out of the slump that I was in. They are genuine guys and they just make me happy to be living and working in Ethiopia. I am lucky to have friends here that I am this close with and I am lucky to have built these relationships over the months. I do miss my family and friends back home, particularly my sister and my parents, but I also have realized how much my family in Ethiopia means to me as well. They are a huge part of my daily life and they keep me balanced over here on the other side of the world. I know that is and will be hard to talk about Peace Corps to my family and friends back home when I am finished, but this chapter in my life will be with me forever and I will show my Ethiopian family the respect they deserve by doing my best to share my experiences with people back home. (This blog as a venue) They say the Peace Corps is the hardest job you will ever love. I am starting to realize what that saying means and I can honestly say that I do love this job.

Church in Frankfurt, Germany

 

Miss you all. Thank you for a good visit home. More blogs to come.

Sunset in Hawzien. Enjoy the beauty of the present moment.

New Post

Oct 17, 2012

I just sat here for an hour trying to write a blog about my experience of going back to the United States. I wrote about three pages before I realized that I have not internalized the experience yet. I am still trying to figure out how I feel about a lot of what I experienced and react to what life is like back in the USA. It is an overwhelming experience to go home for vacation then turn around and leave a few weeks later. I am not going to over-analyze my trip home, at least not yet, at least not to the public. I do want to write about the things that I am going to take back from the US and the steps that I am going to take to improve my life here in Ethiopia. The energy that I felt when I talked to my extended family, my parents, my sister, my friends about my experiences over here was immense. One of my uncle’s was talking about my blog and how much he enjoys reading it. He told me that living vicariously through my photos and through my stories is almost as good as being able to talk to me, in fact it is sometimes better because now he can see a whole new side of me that only comes out when I articulate my thoughts into words. I now have faces to think of when I write these blogs. It is real. It is tangible. I feel re-energized after my short trip home and I feel all the loving support that is back in the US waiting for me to excel in my future projects. (I will soon have one that you.. yes you… can help me out with) I have also realized how close I have become to my Ethiopian friends and co-workers here in Ethiopia. I was excited to come back and I am really really happy to be back here. Back home. I know that this is a short blog with little substance, but I just wanted to write something to thank everyone back home for their support. It was great to see everyone and I can’t wait until I can share my next experience with you all!

 

Everything is good on this side of the world.

 

Vote Obama. (He likes the Peace Corps)

 

 

The Giving Tree

August 9, 2012

A bunch of Guava Trees waiting for their new owners to pick them up.

Everyone knows Shel Silverstein’s children’s book entitled “The Giving Tree.” I recently coordinated a large-scale tree distribution that will attempt to provide thousands of people with their own “giving tree.” The story starts out by introducing the tree and the little boy with whom the tree has a loving relationship. The little boy plays with the tree when he is young. He swings from the tree’s branches and plays in the trees leaves. The story goes on as the boy grows and his needs and wants begin to change as he interacts with the tree. He needs money, so he picks all the apples from the tree and he sells them for money. The tree was happy as long as the boy was happy. The boy grows older and needs a house. The tree offers it’s branches to the boy so he can build a house. The tree is once again happy. (Thus being the theme of the story) The boy grows even older and comes back and wants to build a boat to sail away. The tree offers it’s trunk so the boy can build a boat. He does just that and the tree is happy. The boy comes back one final time and the tree says, I have nothing more to offer you, you have taken everything I had. The boy, who is now a old man just wants a place to sit and rest. The tree offers it’s stump and the tree is happy. This is a beautiful relationship. The tree and the boy grew up together and will die together. Yes, it does have a somewhat depressing underline to the story. The tree is used up. The tree will not bare fruit for anyone else. The tree will not offer more wood to anyone else. But this is the beauty of the relationship. As an environmental volunteer living here in Ethiopia, if all the trees that I helped distribute had similar stories, I would be happy. You might say that for this to happen, these trees would have to be exploited for their physical resources. When I tell my own version of this story, I change some of the details. Trees will outlive people if given the chance, but trees are also at the mercy of human beings. When I tell my version of this story there are multiple generations per tree. There is the original boy. There is the boy’s daughter. There is the boy’s grandson and so on. A project like this is meant to provide food security and to improve the lives of those who receive the trees. This is also a project that aims on improving the natural environment in the area where the trees were distributed. But above all, I think this project strives to improve the relationship between man and nature; like the boy and the tree. When people experience nature they learn about the benefits directly. This lesson is not provided by a lecture, it is a real, hands-on experience. In Ethan Sobel’s stages of cognitive development he explains that the first phase is the exploration phase. This is where people just get their hands dirty and they experience the subject in which they are learning about with physical, tangible interaction. They pick up the trees from the farmers training center and they bring them back to their houses. They plant the trees, build protective fences and observe the progress of a living tree. This leads to the second phase, which is the education phase. This is where people learn about the subject in which they are interacting with. This is where they associate with

A group of Ethiopians help unload a truckload of over 3000 trees in Maycado.

concepts such as how to properly plant a tree, how much water a fruit tree needs to survive or how to properly take care of a papaya tree. In this phase they are actively learning. The third phase is the advocacy phase. This is where people begin to take this experience and knowledge gained in the first two stages and applies it to politics or policy change. They start to advocate for trainings and further change for a common goal regarding the subject. People start to see the benefit of tree plantings and they voice their opinions on how to improve the quality, the survival rate, etc. This process is important here in rural Ethiopia. If people become attached and gain ownership of their trees, the project goals will be easier to achieve. Shel Silverstein told this relationship beautifully. Now living in 2012, not 1964 when this story was written, I would argue that we can take this concept of nature giving to humans unconditionally and shift our focus from one boy to a whole family, generation after generation.

Helping unload coffee trees from the truck.

My favorite picture from the project. A group of Ethiopians carry their newly acquired fruit trees back to their farms using local plastic containers.

I recently coordinated a large-scale fruit tree distribution here in rural Ethiopia on behalf of a woman named Lousie.  Louise Schofield of the Tigray Trust (A British registered charity) purchased the trees after consulting with the Hawzien agricultural department as to the most suitable species to grow in Maycado. The Tigray Trust also funded training for the farmers. Her heart is truly the opposite of the Grinch, it is three sizes too big. She allowed me the opportunity to coordinate and see the project through to the other side and I did just that.  The number is not important, although to give the story some context I will share the facts. There were 1,092 households that received 15 fruit trees each totaling 16,380 trees. There will be additional trees that are distributed to the schools making the total 16,494 trees. There are 6, 117 people that live in the Maycado town and the surrounding rural area, with just over half of the population being women. This project aims to confront poverty and food security head on by distributing these trees to one kaballe, or village, which was selected by Lousie. Logistically, this project was very difficult to pull off. When you are transporting anything in rural Ethiopia you must first arrange the transportation itself. This can be quite a task, with cars and trucks being in limited supply. We spent two months discussing possible strategies for getting these trees from point A to point B. The small trucks that the agriculture office owns can carry anywhere from 200-300 trees depending on the type and size of the trees.  If you do the math that means that it will take over 55 trips in one truck that size. We just don’t have the time or the resources for this. We looked at other options and we gained access to a truck that was provided by RST. (Relief Society of Tigray) This is an NGO that focuses on the rehabilitation of Tigray through various natural resource interventions. This mammoth truck could hold up to 3000 trees per trip. That was what we needed to make this project a reality! We started loading up the truck to the brim like we were playing an advanced game of tetris. This process took almost one week in order to get the trees to the farmer’s training center. We distributed coffee, guava, papaya, avocado, citrus, apple and orange trees. In collaboration with the local agricultural office here in Hawzien, we conducted a training for the extension agents for the area surrounding Maycado. This training focused on the sustainability of the project, how to properly plant the trees, how to maintain the trees after rainy season, how to protect the trees from animals, children, hail and other threats and finally a discussion about the project as a whole and suggestions for future tree distribution projects in the area.

Two tree nursery workers help load papaya trees into one of the smaller pick-up trucks

This project was a special one for me to be involved in. I was able to meet thousands of people that lived in the most rural parts of Northern Ethiopia and connect on a level that was broken down to the basic of human needs: food security. Seeing how grateful the local people were was amazing and that is what I want to share with you all that were unable to be there in person. This project was amazing because of the scale, but for me it reverts back to my opening description: “The Giving Tree.” I remember reading this story to my mother before I left for Ethiopia. My mother used to read  this story as a child, so it already had a special place in my heart. When I was running back and forth with the trucks and the trees I would not help but to think about how these trees would grow and help improve the quality of life for these people. This project will bring man and nature closer as it attempts to link important food security concepts, love for nature and ownership ideology. I am ecstatic that I had the opportunity to be involved with such a selfless project and I am lucky to have been allowed the opportunity to interact with the beneficiaries directly. I will update everyone on this project in a few months. Thanks for reading!

Thank you Lousie. Thank you agriculture office. Thank you Mother Nature. Thank you Shel Silverstein for writing your book, “The Giving Tree.”