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.