Sunday, April 17, 2016

The People Around Me

After a day’s journey, an eight hour drive from Kombolcha to Addis, we are all tired today. Who would think that sitting in a van would be so exhausting. That being said, it was a beautiful trip. I’ve taken that trek many times, and each time I see something new or in a different way. I was tired, and my eyes were fighting me to stay open, but I didn’t want to miss a single sight. There were hundreds if not thousands of animals alongside the road, in the fields, in front yards, or laying on the road (not hurt, just hanging out).  There were goats, lamb, donkeys, cattle, and camels by the dozens.

Ethiopia is building a railroad from Djibouti to Addis, and the line will run alongside the highway, so we were able to see that work in motion. People are walking everywhere, even in areas that seem too remote for humans. There has been lots of rain, so rivers that were dry on previous trips are running rapidly, with people taking advantage of the conditions by washing clothes or themselves in the fast flowing water. Large fields that were dry are a lush green with vast ponds. We drive through bustling small towns with even more people and animals and the signature blue and white three-wheel taxis. We drive by traditional round mud huts with thatched straw roofs, children playing in the front or near the road. We climb up into the mountains and see the vegetation changing, getting thicker and greener. Right before we pass through the last tunnel before we start our descent, we see a pack of monkeys hanging out on the side of the road. I have video of a group of them, with one baring his teeth at me.

On the other side of the tunnel, thick fog quickly develops. The fog is so thick that our driver (finally) slows down to a decent speed as the fog is too thick to even see the car directly in front of us. Unfortunately, the thick fog meant that we could not stop to see the baboons that hang out on one of the hill sides, and that I could not buy Daniel the baboon hat he wanted.

Finally, we’re through the fog and eventually arrive in Addis Ababa, the same bustling, crowded city we’d left five days prior, and our quickly overwhelmed by the smell of diesel exhaust, dust, people, and animals that are the signature aroma of this city. We survive traffic and arrive at the guest house without incident.

After dinner (which was most excellent, by the way), four of us venture over to the corner store to purchase tea. Our translators had left, so we were determined to figure it out ourselves. Benjamin and I had attempted this last year, and even though we were ultimately successful, it was still challenging. This year, I made sure to learn the Amharic word for tea (chai), and ten (arat), as I needed ten boxes. And, I was successful in getting what I needed! Of course, I have to give partial credit to the little girl also in the store who helped explain to the storekeeper what I needed. Although I knew the words, I still have my American accent, which makes it hard to be understood. (Think of people from other countries who you’ve listened to but couldn’t understand because of their accent. They have the words right, but they’re unintelligible. That was me.)

Today was also a busy day. The agenda was to attend church, buy coffee, go to a museum, go to the square to get macchiato, return to the guest house so the ones leaving tonight could pack, go to dinner, and for those of us staying, return to the guest house.

We attended the same church we do on every trip. It’s an International Evangelical Church and has an English speaking service at 8:30. It’s a contemporary service, so lots of great singing and a good message about how different people think about their faith and how we should be thinking about it. It was odd to see so many other people from the United States in the congregation as well as leading the service.

Next came coffee time. I’d been instructed to purchase thirty bags (we sell it to help raise funds for the next year’s feast), so stayed back in line to make sure everyone else got theirs. When it came my time, there wasn’t enough on the shelf, so the workers had to go upstairs to get more and came down with a huge crate filled with coffee bags. The van smelled like coffee in no time!

Next we went shopping at what is known as the “post office” because it is located near that facility. Shopping here is overwhelming. There are eight to ten small stores with open fronts lined up on the street. Immediately when we get out, beggars are asking for money, or trying to sell us belts, gum, maps, and other trinkets. Others are asking us to give them food. Because it’s Sunday, the normal presence of a police officer to give us some protection is missing.

As we walk by stores, storekeepers are asking us to come inside to look at their wares. “I give you good deal” is a common refrain. We have translators with us, so as we make our selections, Fikre and Zelalem negotiate prices. As is the case when you’re buying a car, you always have to be willing to walk away, which we do on occasion. Oddly enough, as soon as we walk out the door, the shopkeeper runs after us telling us we can have the item for the price we wanted.

I did learn one lesson when negotiating. I was trying to negotiate a price on an item. I wanted a lower price in part because I wasn’t sure I had enough money left.  The shopkeeper, however, was being insistent on the price, even though I told him I didn’t have enough. I even pulled out my money, counted it with him so he could see I didn’t have enough (I had even less than the price I was trying to get him to sell me for), and got up to start walking away. As I reached the door, he relented and sold me the item for the lower price. I finally got all but one of the items on my list, we all got into the van, and left. It’s a very overwhelming, stressful experience. I love the things that are sold in the stores, but don’t like having to deal with all of the noise that comes with it.

Next, we went to the derg museum. Derg refers to a period in Ethiopian history when the country was ruled by communists. The emperor was overthrown in the early 70s without any kind of plan to fill the vacuum left behind (sound familiar to some of the things going on in the world today?). The military filled that vacuum and called themselves communists, even though they didn’t have the sophistication or even the literacy to make it truly communist. Their first action was to have all of the top administrators of the emperor executed, so there was even less knowledge about how to run a country. When citizens started to protest the way the country was run, the government responded with mass executions. There’s a square in the middle of the city where the kids now play soccer. More than 1200 people were executed in that square on a single day. Thousands were held prisoner, tortured, and executed. Truck loads were driven in trucks to cliffs, where they were thrown off. Others were hauled off into the wild, shot, and left to be scavenged by hyenas, vultures, and other wild animals. Of the thousands that were buried in mass graves, only 11 have ever been identified, as DNA testing is so expensive. In 1991, the government changed, but the ruler at the time was able to continue his rule. However, dozens of top officials were put on trial and sentenced to long prison terms or life sentences. Some were given death sentences. Several religious groups appealed for forgiveness so all sentences were reduced to prison terms. Then, the previous prime minister, three years ago, declared that all of those prisoners were to be released and given full amnesty. Most, even the one most responsible for the holocaust here, lives in Addis and is given full protection. The derg was a terrible time in Ethiopia’s history, one from which the country is still trying to recover.

It was a sobering tour, given by a man who it turns out was himself tortured while being held prisoner during the derg. He is understandably upset that all of these evil people are now free.

After the tour, we decided not to go for macchiatos, so instead made a quick stop for more coffee and berbere (a zingy spice) and returned to the guest house.

The good news is that I was able to get all of my purchases packed into suitcases. I’m hoping though that this isn’t the one time that they decide to check my bags when I enter the United States. Will they be suspicious and question why I’m bringing in thirty bags of coffee? And it won’t be easy to hide it, as the aroma is wafting around it. I may be up all night tonight just because of the coffee I’m absorbing through the smell!)

After a brief rest, we head to a local hamburger restaurant. It was very good and filling. Even though we’re not supposed to, I braved it and put a tomato on my burger. So far, I’m not feeling any ill effects, so hopefully won’t suffer the consequences of eating something I’m not supposed to. After dinner, we said good bye to the group heading to the airport, and walk over for ice cream (which doesn’t taste anything like our own ice cream, but is still good nonetheless). Then, back to the guest house for our final evening.

Tomorrow is our last day here. We’ll head out for another tour, will stop by a place that sells scarves made and sold by women so they can get off of the streets, have our final dinner at the guest house and head to the airport for the trip home.

It’s been an amazing week, and I am happy to have met the people on this team. I will miss them.

A personal note:

I don’t know if I would call my family growing up dysfunctional, but I don’t know that I would call it functional either. My father, being raised in a foster home with lots of other kids, didn’t have a role model so he could develop in a healthy way. Both of my parents were pretty self-centered, and as I reached 6th grade, their marriage started to fall apart. We moved a lot too, so the sense of security one should receive in those important years never fully formed. My sister and I were pretty close, so despite the issues going on in our home, we had each other. They weren’t bad parents. They provided the essential things we needed (clothes, food, roof), but weren’t really around for the kinds of conversation a kids need.

I’m not complaining. Many kids don’t even get the essentials, so we had it pretty good. Looking back, though, I believe that I was lacking in certain needs that one needs to be successful; a sense of self-awareness, an understanding of how to get along with others, an overall awareness of the world and its connections.

I first became aware of what I lacked during my junior year of high school when I went to a Quaker high school in Pennsylvania because my parents had moved to Saudi Arabia for my father’s job. The others around me opened up a whole new world to me, questioning my assumptions and challenging my world views. These were smart people who, at least from the outside, possessed a confidence and awareness that I knew I lacked.

It was during my two years at Westtown that I realized that I wanted to learn as much as I could from and about other people. I wanted to find the qualities that I admired and take them for my own. I saw qualities that I didn’t like, and made sure I didn’t adopt them.

Looking back, I know I made mistakes. I was quick to judge and too naïve to really understand what was going on around me. There were classmates that I know I could have learned from, but didn’t. But I’ve continued to observe people in order to always try to become a better person.

So what does this have to do with Ethiopia?

I am ending my seventh trip to Ethiopia. Each time, I have been surrounded by great people who possess qualities that I’ve come to admire. This team has been no different. I listen to people and hear how they interact not only with other teammates but with the kids. I watch what people do for each other, not out of a sense of obligation, but out of love and respect. The people around me on these trips become part of me. There are some who I will never see again, but they have left an indelible mark on me. I am a better person because of them.

Thank you.

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