My oldest and best friend Phil came out to visit for almost the whole month of February. Here are some of the photos I took during his trip. You can click through to see the full-size photos.
So I’ve mentioned in the past that my town has no functioning library. The city government in Arsi Negele built a building to house the library several years ago, but ran out of funding to equip it with books and supplies. Well, I’m proud to announce that through some super generous donations, my local officials and I were able to collect 10,000 books, a dozen desktop computers, and a bunch of desks for the library. In fact, we had so many amazing donations, I have been able to fill several new local high school libraries with the overflow books that wouldn’t fit in the municipal library. By far one of the more proud moments of my working life. Below are a few photos of our previously-empty town library the day we brought all the books over and put them in the shelves (we had so many books, the only way the city could transport them from my office was in the back of a dump truck).
Special thanks to our donors, which include: CODE Ethiopia, Darian Book Aid, Ethiopia Reads, the United States Air Force, USAID, PEPFAR, and my wonderful counterpart Dekebo Dale!
And if you want to participate in this amazing and ongoing project, I’m still looking for a couple e-readers for the library. To my knowledge we may be the first rural African library trying to experiment with the technology. Let me know if you’ve got an old one you’d like to donate (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Happy New Year! Though in Ethiopia, we use the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar where it’s just the middle of 2004, so I was the only person in my town who had anything to celebrate last weekend. My festive New Years’ celebration consisted of having a shot of local moonshine at 9 o’clock (I can’t ever make it all the way to midnight here) and watching Arrested Development reruns in my pajamas until I fell asleep with my computer in my lap. I know how to party.
In any event, like every schmuck, with a blog, newspaper column, or OCD, I have decided to put together a “best of” list from 2011. But since I’m kind of an obnoxious asshole, it’s kind of an obnoxious asshole-ish list. I know, big surprise.
Before I left the US, I discovered the hilarious Chopper Reid HTFU Youtube videos. For whatever reason, HTFU had become an anthem for us leg-shaving bike racers to the point that you can rarely stand on the sidelines of a race in Boulder for ten minutes without hearing somebody yell to their buddy to “Harden the Fuck Up!” It doesn’t matter if that poor, suffering soul had expended such a huge effort that he had vomited energy drink all over himself or has hit the tarmac at 40 mph after bumping wheels with another racer and was now covered head-to-toe with oozing road rash. Harden the Fuck Up. That sums it all up. However bad it is, it could be worse. And no matter how much life sucks for you, nobody actually wants to listen to you bitch about it. So jut deal with it and move on.
With that background, I want to celebrate the new year with the first ever HTFU-Ethiopia awards. It’s my way of giving a nod to the biggest badasses doing the most memorable job in a country that can often be pretty unforgiving. However, I don’t give cute little statues. Instead, you just get a lump of coal and a kick on the ass.
So this year’s HTFU awards go to:
The Most Hardened Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia Award:
The award goes to my buddy Jon. Jon has endured what could be the world’s most difficult 12 months for any volunteer living anyplace in the world. Getting to Jon’s village is so sketchy that busses routinely plunge off the side of the mountain road and into the deep ravine below while en route. Deaths are common. Jon’s house is made of mud and sticks and is being eaten by termites at an alarming rate. But there’s no other house in his village available to rent, so he remains in his home, waiting for the roof to cave in and walls to collapse. Then there are the sicknesses. Poor Jon has lost an disturbing amount of weight since he arrived because he’s had every parasite, virus, and bacterial infection known to science. And a few unknown. Jon’s had bouts with giardia. He’s had to take powerful medicine for pinworms. We suspect that he’s contracted Schistosomiasis. Jon has had typhoid. Twice. And despite all indications that Jon’s entire GI tract has turned into little more than a tapeworm brothel, he remains the most humorous, upbeat volunteer in this country. Congratulations Jon; you have hardened the fuck up. Here’s your lump of coal. Now bend over.
The Hardest Working Person in Ethiopia Award:
This award undoubtedly has to go to my local counterpart, Dekebo. Dekebo is a force of nature. He works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Sometimes more. I live next door to our office and heard him getting to work this morning at 5 o’clock. He rarely leaves before 8 pm. And because my town is kind of sketchy after dark, he sleeps in his office chair if he’s been working too late to walk home safely. He has singlehandedly built his NGO into a regional hub for environmental affairs. He has also singlehandedly raised money to build and open 33 schools in the area, planted a hundred thousand trees in my town, and has mobilized a small army of politicians, international NGOs, local officials, citizens, and civic leaders to undertake a number of massive environmental projects in the area. And he’s done all this relying only on one part-time assistant, his 20-year-old computer, a busted cell phone, and Ethiopia’s terrifying public transportation to get to engagements. If Ethiopia were ever to make a MacGuiver series, it would probably just be a reality show that follows Dekebo around all day.
HTFU Lifetime Achievement Award:
This year the Lifetime Achievement Award goes to the 70 million peasant farmers in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is among poorest countries in the world, with chronic drought, crop diseases, and other hardships. The ploughs used here are literally identical to those used in ancient Egypt. That’s right: there has been no widespread advancement in agricultural practices here in over 2000 years. Forget the Digital Revolution; the Bronze Age has barely arrived for most of my country. Life could not be much tougher for rural Ethiopians. They often watch children die of preventable illnesses, work all day in the rain and wind and hail, face hunger when crops fail, have no medical care to speak of, and rarely live to see old age. It’s a difficult—almost brutish—existence. Yet, I can honestly say that of the scores of rural farmers I’ve met since arrival, I have yet to meet one that is not gracious, warm, and welcoming. They insist in inviting you into their homes for coffee, try to slip an extra tomato or head of garlic into your bag when you buy from them at market, and are clearly more wise by the age of 25 than I’ll ever be, despite being illiterate and having never left their home village. It’s a life that would break me, but the folks here pull it off with grace and dignity. If that doesn’t warrant a lifetime HTFU award, I don’t know what does.
Least HTFU Moment in Ethiopian History:
Our final award of the evening goes to—drumroll please—me! In what can be described as nothing short of a Herculean display of hypocrisy and mediocrity, I have failed to HTFU. Despite repeatedly telling many of my fellow volunteers to harden up when they encounter a crisis, when my own moment of truth came, I floundered spectacularly. It all happened when I was using my bathroom the other night and I felt a huge spider fall down the front of my shirt. It must be said that I have an irrational, wildly out-of-proportion fear of spiders. My paranoia of spiders probably ranks somewhere between the feeling Keith Richards gets he runs out of drugs and how Joseph McCarthy would have felt at the prospect of spending his summer holiday in Moscow. So, as you can imagine, a freaky African spider scuttling through my chest hair caused considerable alarm on my part. I started shrieking in a very immodest and unmasculine manner while gesticulating wildly and franticly trying to shake the spider out. This, naturally, caused me to slip on floor and fall halfway into my toilet. My bathroom toilet, by the way, isn’t hooked up to any plumbing and would probably qualify to be a superfund cleanup site if it were in the States. (As a result of falling into the toilet, my body now undoubtedly hosts some super organism that will be used to wipe out millions of people in World War III.) In any event, my compound mates, thinking that I was being murdered in the bathroom, rushed out of their house to see what the problem was. Stumbling out of the bathroom, I frantically tried to explain what happened, but couldn’t remember a word of Amharic because I didn’t HTFU and study language and now that I was panicked, I’d completely forgotten the pitifully few words that I do know. There was just a lot of panicked screaming and pointing on my part as they cautiously backed away from me. Finally, when things calmed down, I went to my room and took my shirt off to find that I had freaked out not because of a spider, but because a macaroni noodle had somehow clung to my 2-week beard during dinner and fell down my shirt when I was in the bathroom. I also later found out that I had fallen on and broken my phone. That’s right, I freaked out, fell into the world’s grossest toilet, alienated my compound mates, and broke my cell phone because, evidently, when eating processed pasta products, I get so excited that I cannot reliably transfer all of said product into my mouth. And that has to be the least HTFU moment in Ethiopian history. Guess I’ve got a lot to learn from the local farmers about grace and dignity.
After neglecting this blog for an astonishing four months, I have reemerged from my hole to apologize to all four of you that actually read this drivel for not keeping current. Life is good and I’ve actually got a lot of junk to post here. But between being absurdly busy and spotty internet access, I’ve been prevented from keeping you all as up-to-date as I’d like. So while I continue to work on a couple real updates, here are some photos I’ve snapped over the last year but haven’t gotten around to posting.
WARNING!!!!! A couple are photos of animal slaughter I took at a holiday festival. If you’re squeemish, you probably don’t want to scroll down. You’ve been warned.
I’ve got a confession to make: I suck at learning languages. Listening to me try to pick up a new language must create in a linguist the same visceral response as watching a public beheading. Eleven months into my service, I have only the most rudimentary grasp on the languages spoken in my area. My language teacher here in Ethiopia, god bless her, was actually reduced to tears of frustration at one point during our training. I’m that bad.
Sometimes, my profound communicatory incompetence leads merely to cute little blunders. For instance, a few months ago when I got a haircut, I couldn’t remember the word for haircut, so I told the barber that “You give very beautiful white person head.” I’m really hoping that one got lost in the translation. Or there’s the time I went to a restaurant in the capital and ordered a salad. Somehow, I blotched the order so badly that the waiter reappeared with a bowl of raw cow meat drizzled with melted butter. I’m not usually one to send back a meal, but in that case I was forced to make an exception.
Even the basics elude me sometime. To this day, I still confuse the numbers if I don’t think for a second before speaking. Imagine the servers surprise when, out to dinner with three friends recently, I insisted that we wanted a fresh round of ten beers. Or there’s the time I was haggling for a taxi and the driver told me the fare would be 30 birr. For my counteroffer, I accidently told him I’d go no higher than 50 birr. Didn’t take him long to agree to that.
Occasionally I cause such a colossal verbal trainwreck that I’m surprised I haven’t been kicked out of the country. A few months ago, I was meeting with a woman who had donated to a project I’m starting in my town. In an effort to complement a donor’s generosity and show off how well I’ve integrated into Ethiopian culture, I told her that she “stinks like a mother lion.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what I was trying to say there. It really just came out as a jumbled and seemingly random assortment of words. The donor, who speaks flawless English, translated for me what I had just told her and graciously suggested we stick with my native tounge for the rest of the conversation.
And then there are the times when people are talking to me and I haven’t the foggiest clue what they’re trying to convey. My counterpart told me to “watch out” and I thought I heard “come here” in Afan Oromo. So, taking a step forward, my foot was run over by a 400-pound donkey cart loaded with grain. Another instance occurred last night. The power was out, so my compound mate asked me in Amharic for a candle. Baffled by such a strange request, I disappeared into my room and emerged moments later with a pair of Men’s Size 11 hiking boots, as the words for candle and shoes are almost identical to my ignorant and untrained ear. She, like many of my ex-girlfriends, now thinks I’m either a poor listener or half retarded. Or both.
Despite my supreme language failures, things are moving along swimmingly. It’s actually hard to believe it, but my service is nearing its midpoint. Time is flying by. And my projects are coming together nicely. The library I’m opening in my town is proceeding remarkably smoothly, with over 3000 books donated to date and I just received a grant with which I’ll purchase a few thousand more. I’m working on ecotourism, water and sanitization, climate change and food security, and wood-saving stove projects as well. All are moving forward, albeit slowly at times.
Also, we put on a tree-planting in a forest rehabilitation site a couple weeks ago and got something like 20,000 seedlings in the ground in a program that brought together a bunch of rural farmers, military personnel, regional government officials, and civil society. It was inspirational, if not a bit strange, to see a guy in military fatigues, a man wearing business attire, and a barefoot old peasant farmer woman all helping one another to get a row of trees in the ground. After all the trees were planted, my counterpart gave a speech on the importance of environmental protection to the crowd and then asked me to say a few words to the 600 or so attendees. He’s wily like that; every time we attend a large ceremony or event, he always surprises me by asking me to give an impromptu speech. Although, it’s much easier now that he lets me do my speeches in English. We decided upon that path after I blotched a speech in Amharic to 5,000 high school student athletes when I told them they were clever like the wind and that they have pretty feet. Because, well, I suck at languages.
Friends, family, stalkers, and assorted blogosphere readers, I have a great way you can get involved in one of my projects!
I’m calling it Kindles For Kiddos (don’t laugh, the runner up was iPods For Ithopians).
As many of you know, I live in a town of 70,000 people, yet there is no library. No school library, no public library, nothing. Think about that for just a minute. The high school students don’t have textbooks. There isn’t a magazine or newspaper for miles. Little kids have no children’s books. There is simply no access to information for the people in my community.
However, with the help of many local officials and my incredible counterpart, we’re trying to change that. Four years ago, my town built a library but it was never opened because the project ran out of funds to purchase books. So I’m currently in the process of applying for a few grants and book donations that will hopefully finally fill and open the library.
But I’d like to go one step farther: I would like to get a few Kindles or iPads. The biggest problem with traditional books is that they’re heavy, bulky, and expensive to ship to a location as remote as mine. But one small tablet device can hold literally thousands of books and introduce the older students in my town to the types of technology they’ll be encountering if they are fortunate enough to get into college in one of the cities. Furthermore, with an iPad in particular, I would be able to bring recent news and periodicals into my community. That’s both really cool and totally revolutionary.
There are also a couple book donation NGOs that are active in my area that are flirting with larger-scale tablet donation programs, so I want to make my library a sort of beta test for such a program to gauge how sustainable this concept would be in rural Africa. With any luck, mine would be the first of many libraries in the region that offers both digital and traditional resources.
This is where you, oh generous reader, come in. I’m searching for those tech geeks among you who might be upgrading to new iPads or Kindles (or other tablets) and are looking for something to do with the old device. Or perhaps you work in an office where folks might be willing to all pitch in 20 bucks to purchase one of these items. Or maybe you have a techie friend, colleague, or neighbor who might have an extra device and would want to donate it to an Ethiopian library. If so, it would be an enormous contribution to my community. I’ll even send you a photo of the folks here using your device. (Fellas: these types of photos really impress the ladies, as they show your caring, generous side so well. Trust me on this one.)
And even if you don’t have a tablet to donate, you can still help by circulating this blog post to your friends and family (especially if you’re buddies with Steve Jobs). If this went viral, it would be about the coolest thing ever. And as you might be able to guess, there’s no hipster-filled Mac store in my town, so you can also help if you happen to have an extra case, power cord, or other accessories.
Note that I AM NOT in a position to take cash contributions. Receiving monetary donations entails a lengthy paperwork process that must go through official Peace Corps channels. Since this is a relatively inexpensive proposition and many of you have expressed interest in somehow helping out with my work here, I’d like to try this route first. Besides, this is more fun than just asking for money.
Also, please DO NOT ship anything without first contacting me. Electronics shipped into Ethiopia incur a 100 percent tariff. So if you sent me a $600 machine, I’d have to pay an additional $600 in taxes. And since my living allowance amounts to only a few US dollars a day, these fees would be the rough equivalent of buying a ski-in-ski-out chalet in Aspen.
You can reach me at email@example.com. I’ll make arrangements to have a friend in the States load the machine up with all the materials and bring it over when he visits this winter.
And please, please remember to delete those photos from your Vegas trip off your iPad before you send it. You know the ones I’m talking about.
“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is a last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing—it is never dull.”
–Beryl Markham, West with the Night
Last week I went with two other volunteers to do some reconnaissance and mapping work at a handful of ecotourism sites near my town. The trip was to familiarize ourselves with these sites, map the trails, identify infrastructure needs, and evaluate overall tourism appeal. National Geographic is also making a map of the area of these sites and wanted photos, so I’m hoping that some of the photos below will grace a Nat Geo publication.
The first stop was Tulu Gudu, a small island in the middle of a massive lake called Lake Ziway. Tulu Gudu is pretty remarkable because the island’s 900 residents have lived in isolation for most all of the last thousand years and speak their own indigenous language. They have also preserved most of the native acacia forest on the island. In a country that has been 97 percent deforested, this makes the island both unique and beautiful. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tulu Gudu is that many people believe the Arc of the Covenant was hidden in a monastery on the island for 80 years during the 12th century to keep it safe from the wars that were plaguing northern Ethiopia. The monastery is still operational and looks like it will probably be incorporated into the island hike if the church and local community decide they want the visitors.
The next stop was Bochessa Peninsula on Lake Ziway. In a country that is renowned for its birdlife, this sliver of land is exceedingly remarkable. We saw a huge number of species in just a couple hours and many are displaying pretty remarkable plumage now that the rains are starting and mating season has arrived. Plus there are spooky mangrove swamps, prehistoric-looking 6-foot lizards, and stunning lake vistas. Not a bad spot.
Next up, we hit Lepis, the town near Arsi Negele where I’m doing the majority of my work. Not only is the Lepis Forest a birdwatching paradise, it also features monkeys, antelope, waterfalls, ancient forests, and some of the most charming little villages I’ve seen any place in the world.
After these stops, the other volunteers returned to their sites but I continued on to visit another volunteer named Dorsey. Dorsey lives in the Senkele Swayne’s Hartebeest Game Preserve. A couple decades ago, the numbers of Swayne’s Hartebeest had dwindled to a few dozen. Today, they have rebounded to about 600 individuals living in two locations. This hartebeest is listed by the IUCN among the species in the world in “imminent danger of extinction.” So it was a rare opportunity to see a very endangered species in-situ. And it’s almost mating season so Dorsey and I were privy to a lot of exciting activity in the herd, as males challenged each others’ territory with frequent skirmishes, head butting, and high-speed chases. Other wildlife on the preserve include oribi (a cute little antelope that’s about 3 feet tall), warthogs, aardvarks, and lots of cool avifauna. The downside is that the sanctuary is under real and immediate threat as local tribes are fighting over the land (which they’re not actually supposed to be on) and are illegally grazing thousands of head of cattle within the preserves’ boundaries. All this activity has pushed the hartebeest into a tiny corner of the sanctuary where they are able to avoid the worst of the molestation. Unfortunately, the government here has not allocated adequate funding to equip the sanctuary staff with the resources they need to enforce the boundaries. So without some big changes, I fear the future of the sanctuary is uncertain at best.