PCVs in Ethiopia

The toughest job you’ll ever . . . love?

by Jennifer Miller (Debre Markos, 2011– )
Editor’s note:  Used with permission from her blog  jebenajen.wordpress.com

AS THE FIRST (RETURNING) GROUP of Education Sector PCVs in Ethiopia, G5 (as our group is called) has faced a multitude of hurdles. Some of these obstacles were anticipated, even expected, while others were never even imagined, even (as the saying goes) in our wildest dreams. I don’t want to write extensively about the most serious challenges in a public forum such as this, but the time in our site has been an unfolding series of unanticipated chiggers (which — parenthetically — include difficult individuals + entrenched institutional/cultural attitudes/beliefs + low professional morale + omnipresent poverty + corrosive forces of corruption + lack of resources).

Chigger (Amharic for problem) + otch (plural suffix) = Chiggerotch.

Chigger (English for a bug that makes you itch) + s (plural suffix) = Chiggers.

This past week, some G5ers were in Addis working with Daniel O (our APCD) on “Training, Development and Evaluation” for the next group of Education Peace Corps Trainees (referred to as G7). G7 will be twice as large as our group (we were a group of 35 and they will have 70). They arrive in Ethiopia in one month. We eagerly await their arrival and are doing our best to make their road here in Ethiopia a little less rocky. We aren’t bringing in the Chinese road paving crew, but we are trying to eliminate some of the worst hazards and pothole-sized early morale busters. It will be hard enough for most of them, even with our improvements, especially if they are too idealistic. But how can you be one month away from starting Peace Corps training and NOT BE jazzed up about the adventures you imagine lie ahead, right?

The outline of G7′s training program is now in place and most of the sessions should help prepare them for their work as English Language Teacher Trainers. Apparently, the “teacher trainer” placement here in Ethiopia is different from most Peace Corps/Education assignments internationally because we don’t serve as direct classroom teachers. Selazi (therefore), we have an ambiguous role in our communities and it sounds like many of us have struggled (on a daily basis) to establish and maintain our professional working relationships with local constituents.

What are the basic requirements needed to survive in our assigned roles? Personally, having curiosity about humanity in all its complexity, beauty and ugliness has helped. Without an ability to embrace people as we are, sometimes inspirational and other times deeply flawed and incompetent, I could not work as an education PCV in Ethiopia. That may seem obvious, but if you don’t like being surrounded by humans and interacting with them all day, every day, this placement is not for you.

Recently, faculty and teacher’s lounges are places that lend themselves to the inevitable requests from me, the American, for all types of physical resources, which are nonexistent here. I am solid and secure in my role as a “capacity builder” without funding and I don’t want to be viewed as a visiting farenji who is here to distribute resources. Laptops are a dream for most primary and CTE teachers — and laptops are simply beyond their reach financially. The average wage earned in country per year is $390. Teachers are paid very little, with Primary Teachers being the lowest paid of all.

In walks farenji Jennifer, the American. I sit down in the teachers’ lounge (after required greeting rituals), get out my laptop and help the school supervisor download pictures and print them out (in black and white) on the office printer for a school program. The supervisor needs more photos, so I take out my digital camera and snap photos of teachers, students, the garden, various science projects. We download these photos and he prints them out in the office, which has the only desktop computer in the whole school.

Everyone was elated to be photographed, and everyone wants to see the photos we just took on my computer. After sharing these photos as well as photos I have from home and travels to Tigray, everyone in the teachers’ lounge wants a camera and a laptop of their own. Completely understandable. I love my camera! I love my laptop! I consider them essential tools for my job and my life. The teachers ask me for these things (such requests are nothing new) and for one moment, I sincerely wish I could be the farenji American who hands each and every one of them a camera and a laptop. But what can I do? I am here for capacity building, right? In response to these persistent requests for resources, I get out my cell phone and pretend to dial . . .

“Hello? Hello? Is this the White House? Yes? Oh, great. Can I please speak with Barack? Oh, he’s busy? Can I please speak with Michelle? . . . Thank you. Oh, hello, hello Michelle!! How are you??  

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama on phone with Jen

Yes? I’m fine, just fine . . .  I am here in Ethiopia in Debre Markos working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. . . Yes, it is very nice here, I like it very much . . . So Michelle, I’m just sitting here with some primary school teachers and we were wondering if you could send us some laptops?

Really? You can? Oh, thank you!! That is wonderful . . . How many laptops do we need? Hmmmm, let me see . . . (I survey the room and count the teachers who are watching me with amusement). . . . We need one, two, three . . . fifteen, sixteen . . . How about twenty? Okay, thank you very much. See you later! Bye!!

At the completion of that dramatization, most teachers were asking me “Who is Michelle?” When I told them she is Barack Obama’s wife, and she is someone who can really get things done, we all had a good laugh. “She is the one who wears the trousers in the family,” I say, knowing that a similar concept of women “wearing the trousers” having authority and power exists in Amharic culture.

The PCV job is tough. One of the toughest assignments I’ve ever had for sure. And difficult to explain to others, though we are all trying to understand why it is so difficult here. I have found that I constantly have to fight for my right to exist as a female with authority and expertise. I have to fight to provide professional “Capacity Building” at my primary assignment (the CTE), which is only difficult because I expected my professional expertise to be welcomed, not ignored. The reasons for my personal struggles are still murky, but the overall picture is becoming more clear with passing time. So I persevere.

Some days I think: So . . . where is the love part of this whole PCV thing? Tough, yes. Love? . . . not today!

Welcoming students

And then, two weeks ago, I started to work in the Primary School. It was then and there where the humanity begins to return. How can you not love being kidnapped from the 2nd Grade Teacher by the 1st Grade teacher, who is desperate for you to teach her eager class a song? So what shall it be? Head, shoulders, knees and toes? Okay then, here we go!! I catch the looks of pure and innocent joy on the faces of the children, who know these words in English but have never sung this particular song. They are thrilled to sing it first slowly, with actions. Then a second time, a little bit faster. And a third time, even faster!! If you happen to get kidnapped by a 1st grade teacher, just know that the absurd and intense dose of fun you will have inside that classroom teaching a silly little song to enthusiastic youth just might help you find the love you’d been missing at the CTE . . .

GOOD NEWS: I am happy to share the good news that I was awarded a grant from Minnesota Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Early Grade Reading Centers! This small grant will make a significant difference in the work I can accomplish over the next year and 3 months. Thank you MNRPCV!!!

OTHER NEWS: I mailed a package of letters to 2nd Graders in Fayetteville, North Caroline. The pen pal idea was very fun and motivating for students here. I read the letters that were crafted at home and only one second grader had the audacity to ask for a laptop from the kids in the U.S. I had to smile as I wondered which older sibling or parent put that idea into the young man’s head, or is he just advanced for his age?

A mobile pocket library

Here is an image from a primary school in Mekelle. It is of a new idea that I’m inspired by: Mobile Pocket Libraries. I DEFINITELY want to make some of these Mobile Pocket Libraries and use them in our primary schools as “Mini-Libraries” and Early Grade Reading Centers. This idea links to the grant I wrote to MNRPCV. To know more about Library Innovators, check out the Beyond Access link.

Libraries + Access + Books + Ethiopia = Toughest + Job + Love!

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