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.