A Bal Ager Experience in Yooperland

Deep in the North Woods of Michigan, Ethiopians seem right at home

by LaDena Schnapper (Dessie, Awassa 63–66)

I EXPLAINED, “In Ethiopia, people are named after certain regions, i.e. Gonderes, Gojames, Tigrays, etc; so too we in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan “da U.P.,” are deemed Yoopers! And where we are now in the U.P. is considered, the “sticks,” or the bal ager.”  “Ishi, ishi,” they responded.

This was one of the intercultural exchanges which occurred during the second annual Bal Ager Experience in Mansfield Township, Crystal Falls, Michigan.  Three Elders (Ato Gebre, Ato Admasu, Waizero Achamelesh) and two social workers (Amsalu and Efraim) journeyed by van 330 miles from the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago to relax, commune with nature, share their culture and learn about the American Northwoods for four days.

Emerging from my personal need to continue to serve Ethiopians, my increasing love of nature and the belief that everyone needs to spend more time outdoors, I decided to invite the Ethiopian Elders to the U.P.  I must confess, however, my addiction to doro wat and buna probably had something to do with it!

The setting is my friend’s little cedar cottage, replete with fireplace, nestled by a small lake with abundant birds, deer, wildflowers and woods. Tents are available for the brave. I haul a car full of Ethiopian books, videos, music and a trunk filled with all my artifacts to the cottage to use to entertain and educate. A combination of American and Ethiopian food is cooked and served outdoors around the fire ring.  I actually make ferfer, kinche and Habasha dabo and supply Ethiopian beer and tedj.  The group brings injera and wat. Waizero Wulita’s comment last year compensated for the efforts to recreate a bit of Ethiopia for my guests, “In 20 years in America, this is the first time I’ve felt like I’m back home.”

2009 - Ephraim Assefa, Gebre Woticha, Wulita Esayias, LaDena, Amsale Gebre, Achamelesh Tessema in front of LaDena's Italian grandparents 100-year-old ancestral homestead

In 2009 the group learned about my family, i.e. how my grandparents immigrated from Italy over 100 years ago.  They visited the ruins of my grandfather’s saloon, the little country church my uncle helped build and the remains of the family farm. We kayaked, hiked and learned about Upper Michigan.

This year, the group was amazed with the hard life of the miners as we visited the underground Iron Mountain Iron Mine. How proud the group was to put a stick pin on the map indicating they were the first visitors from Ethiopia; they even wrote in Amharic in the guest book! The Dickenson County Fair brought exclamations of awe at the large draft horses and various chicken species. But it was at Pine Mountain ski jump that they appreciated the spectacular panorama of the Northwoods and marveled at the sport of “flying” as they called it.

The last day/night of their visit we held a gibza with Americans. Over the years I have amassed enough Habasha lebs, gabi-s, kuta-s, natalah-s, shamma-s for some 50 people. So . . . all guests assisted by the 10-year-old granddaughter of a friend who we renamed Kongit were given clothes to wear to “become” Ethiopian for the day.

2010 - Ato Admasu kayaking. "Just like a tonkwa in Lake Tana."

Ato Admasu, an 80-year-old wrapped in his gabi,  who dared out in a kayak after 62 years (his last time on the water was in a tonkwa on Lake Tana), summed it up, “I have never enjoyed myself so much in my life.” (Well . . . Ethiopians are known to decorate the truth on occasion).

As we made buna and smelled the itan, not only myself, but my guests were transported to this land of antiquity with its rich culture and traditions. I experienced utter joy and deep satisfaction in playing Negest Saba.

Stories began to flow from the Ethiopians. Americans listened and asked questions. A true melding of cultures was witnessed. Tezeta (memory) gushed up flooding me with emotions. I remember the warm, gracious, simple hospitality offered a young female, a stranger in a foreign land 47 years ago. Indeed I give thanks for having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, and for the opportunity to give back at this point in my life.

2 responses to “Friends

  1. LaDena, way to go. What a wonderful experience you provided for them. Wish I could have been there. I was in the UP in 2008 and visited the project site of a Senior Citizen Center I started in Iron River in 1967. The UP is just the best….reconnected with old friends and just had a special time. Looking forward to seeing you at the 50th. My wife, Ellen, and I met you and Mel in the Virgin Islands for Ethiopia X in 1968. Jim Moon

    • Tenestaling Jim and Ellen,
      Well heavens! I never knew you had UP connections. I know the Iron River Center well; in fact worked just up the hill from it at the mental health center.
      Mel (we have been divorced for 25 years, but are good friends) just got back from a year in Lesotho and has a pending contract for Nigeria. I do look forward to seeing you at the 50th.
      Selam, LaDena

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