Getting to know you – once again
The first group of the new batch of Ethiopia PCVs heads home after two years. The verdict: hard work and many rewards, great and simple. Peace Corps now has solid roots in Ethiopia
by Christen Smith (Debre Marcos 2007-2009)
The September dawn of the new Ethiopian year found me back with my host family in Weliso, nearly two years after I had stumbled awkwardly into their lives as a newly arrived Volunteer from America. Much had changed since then. My little sister, just three years old when we met, was starting to read and write, and my little brother had transformed from a clumsy boy of twelve to a stylishly dressed young man of fourteen. My momma’s oldest son had perceptibly shed the immaturity of his early twenties and was increasingly stepping into a role as “man of the house.”
My adoptive relatives, however, were not the only ones who had grown. As lively conversation filled the house along with the sweet, spicy aroma of the traditional doro wot, I found myself able to engage fully in the festivities, bantering in my improved Amharic and showing off my familiarity and ease with Ethiopian holiday customs.
Though I had always been treated as a member of the family and a member of the Weliso community, now I truly felt it. And now as my momma played the gracious hostess, introducing me to the stream of relatives, friends, and neighbors that filtered through the house throughout the day, I found that the majority of our guests simply replied, “Yes, I know, I already know her.”
As the first group of Volunteers entering Ethiopia since Peace Corps’ exit from the country in 1999, we have spent most of our two years letting Ethiopia get to know us. To be sure, there is an entire generation of Ethiopians who remember fondly their Peace Corps teachers and will not hesitate to ask us, with eager light in their eyes, if we know “Mr. John” or “Miss Kim.” Yet ten years of absence and the initiation of a new health program, rather than Peace Corps’ more familiar work in education, has placed the task of reteaching on our shoulders.
Starting work with our community counterparts meant first correcting their assumptions that we would pay their salaries, provide them with computers, or purchase new Land Cruisers for their organizations. We became well acquainted with that puzzled expression that would come over the faces of community members when we tried to explain that our role was to “establish linkages,” “build capacity,” and “empower the community to help itself.”
I showed up on the doorsteps of countless local organizations, offering free labor and all but begging them to find a use for my skills, to be told with a smile and a handshake, “We will certainly call you.” I will let you guess how many calls I received. The process of finding work in our communities was slow, and, discouraged — some of us left Peace Corps Ethiopia. Out of the 42 who completed training and swore in as Volunteers, 19 of us will finish our service at the end of the year. Many of those who left did so in order to pursue jobs or graduate study, while two Volunteers transferred to an English-teaching Peace Corps program in China. (Seven were forced to leave the program due to medical, safety, or administrative circumstances.)
Nevertheless, despite the uphill path we have traveled, Peace Corps has accomplished encouraging results in its first two years in-country. In two years, Peace Corps Volunteers have reached 6,477 people with HIV prevention messages, linked 2,987 HIV-positive people to care and support services, and met the needs of 2,631 orphans and vulnerable children. Within their communities, Volunteers have developed data-management and referral systems for hospitals, taught life and relationship skills to Ethiopian youth, and established small business ventures, including local mills and computer centers, to help people living with HIV to support themselves.
Working in Dessie, Volunteer Nichole Starr developed a home-based care manual and used it to conduct trainings for people caring for AIDS patients. Nancy Ross in Adama organized soccer tournaments for children orphaned or otherwise made vulnerable by the AIDS epidemic. Eden Yimam organized small-scale farmers in his town, Dejen, into a sustainable agricultural enterprise that makes most effective use of their shared land. Meanwhile, Karen Preskey in Agaro created a support group for HIV-positive mothers, training mentor-mothers and antenatal care providers to increasingly prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus. These examples represent just a small slice of the varied work conducted by Peace Corps Volunteers in their first two years in Ethiopia.
Over these past two years, we have also seen growth and improvement in our program itself. At the outset, Peace Corps Ethiopia struggled to define goals and objectives that were appropriate for Ethiopia and realistic for Volunteers. We wrestled with questions of where we should work, with whom we should partner, and in what sorts of areas we should focus. Staff turnover in our first year was nearly constant, leading to a lack of consistency in policies and vision. We are still attempting to arrive at the best working relationship between the Peace Corps office, Volunteers, and the Ethiopians with whom we work. The goal is for Peace Corps to support Volunteers in their efforts to meet the needs of Ethiopians and their organizations, but without intruding upon PCVs’ work or treating them like children. Using the input of the two training groups of Volunteer now in Ethiopia, however, we are slowly but surely arriving at that point.
As an example, I, along with three fellow Volunteers and five of our Ethiopian language and culture trainers, have been involved with efforts to improve language training to better prepare Volunteers to live and work in their communities. We spent a number of grueling, full weeks together hashing out issues of content, fighting to help each other understand cultural differences in teaching and learning between Ethiopians and Americans, and eventually producing a new manual to serve as the basis for future language trainings. At the end of this gargantuan task, as we reflected upon what we had accomplished together, one of our Ethiopian colleagues warmly thanked us for “teaching us [the Ethiopian trainers] so many things about the Amharic language.” It was one of those very poignant Peace Corps moments that teaches you that just by taking another’s perspective, you can learn new things about subjects you thought you already knew everything about. That is undoubtedly what I will miss most about Peace Corps, the opportunity to challenge myself with new perspectives and use those perspectives to create positive change, both in myself and the world around me.
As I approached the end of my service, I realized how much of Ethiopia has entered into who I am. There are the big things, such as a greater value on time spent simply enjoying the company of friends and neighbors, sitting and sharing life together. And then there are the little things, too, like my astounding lack of hesitation in consuming buttered meat for breakfast, or my now ingrained impulse to accompany expressions of greeting, thanks, or even simple acknowledgement with a respectful bow of the head. I’ll miss strolling through beautiful countryside, walking into town with an entourage of sheep and donkeys, sitting on the balcony of my favorite juice bar, enjoying a fresh mango-guava-avocado mix and watching the colorful parade of people and goods heading to market. Of course, there are also elements of Ethiopian life that I think I’ll do fine without — the constant attention, the “YouYouYou!”s and “MoneyMoneyMoney!”s, the almost complete nonexistence of women in social arenas. But with all its ups and downs, joys and frustrations, every moment of my Peace Corps experience in Ethiopia has taught me something that I will always carry with me.
For all of us Volunteers, Ethiopia will forevermore be a part of our lives. I believe that through the friendships we have made and the work that we have done, we have had a lasting impact on Ethiopia, too. If nothing else, maybe when future groups of Volunteers explain that they are with the Peace Corps, they will be met with the response, “Yes, I know, I already know it.”
Editor’s note: Christen, along with other members of her group, left Ethiopia in mid-November. She is now living in Winston-Salem, N.C.
In December, 41 new PCVs were sworn in at the U.S. Embassy in Addis. This is the third group to serve in Ethiopia since Peace Corps returned in 2007. This brings the total of PCVs to have worked in Ethiopia to 3,012. Peace Corps/Ethiopia is currently focused on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support, and assistance to orphans and vulnerable children. They work in partnership with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief , commonly called PEPFAR.