G9 was “Born on the Fourth of July”
By Chad Miller (Debre Markos, Addis Ababa 2011– )
Arriving the night of July 3rd, 2013 on a flight from Frankfurt, the ninth training group in the most recent incarnation of Peace Corps/Ethiopia began their PST (Pre-service Training) on Independence Day, 2013. Fifty-eight strong, the new class of recruits, bound to serve as the third group of volunteers in the education sector program known as ITELE (Improving the Teaching of English Language in Ethiopia), started a new chapter of their lives with a day of orientation, paperwork, and administrative sessions — cushioned by a lunch of delicious, traditional Ethiopian food and the obligatory coffee ceremony — at the Peace Corps office in Addis Ababa. Within ten days, G9 had moved about two hours south of Addis to Butajira, one of the larger towns in the Gurage Zone of the SNNPR [Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region]. Butajira would be their home for the next ten weeks. Living with local families, the PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) would get an unforgettable and invaluable immersion in Ethiopian culture and daily life (a process sometimes called “homestay”). During this same time period, they would receive intensive training: more than 140 hours of language classes (Amharic, Afaan Oromoo, or Tigrinya); nearly eighty hours of technical (education) training; plus almost ninety hours of other training, including cross-culture, medical, safety and security, and Peace Corps “Global Core” sessions. Butajira was a new training site for Peace Corps/Ethiopia and ushered in a new training model. Past training groups were placed in small towns scattered around a larger hub town; groups of around four to ten PCTs lived in each of the smaller sites, where they studied language with an LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator). The whole group would come together by bus in the hub town for large group training sessions. This year all of G9 was located in Butajira for both their small-group language classes (held in LCFs’ compounds) and the large group sessions (held at local hotels). They lived with host families. Technical training sessions covered the structure and context of the Ethiopian education system, TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) methods, lesson planning, an overview of the English for Ethiopia textbooks, and much more. At the heart of the technical training experience was a two-week teaching practicum. PCTs with varying degrees of previous teaching experience had a chance to apply the skills and knowledge from their technical sessions by teaching local children in grades 3–8 at three public primary schools in Butajira. Education program staff, PCVLs (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader), LCFs, and active ITELE PCVs observed and gave feedback and constructive criticism to help each PCT develop a strong, reflective TEFL practice. A typical week during PST meant the trainees were busy with language and technical sessions from eight in the morning until five-thirty in the evening, Monday through Friday, with yet more language sessions on Saturday morning. Saturday afternoon and Sunday were free for socializing, catching up on laundry and other chores, and enjoying time with host families. Unlike previous training sites, Butajira offered several hotels with wireless Internet access, allowing Trainees to stay in much closer contact — for better or for worse — with their friends and family back home. The long training schedule, eleven weeks in total, was broken up by “Demystification” visits that allowed trainees to spend a couple of days at an active Volunteer’s site to get a preview of the reality of living and working in Ethiopia as a PCV (in Week 1); a visit to their future work sites with a local Community Liaison (in Week 6); and a recreational day-trip to Lake Langano (in Week 9).Ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie Amde, the Director General for the Americas at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
At the end of Week 11, fifty-seven trainees took the oath and were sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers at the American Embassy in Addis.
PST was one of the most grueling experiences of my life. The hours were long, the stakes were high, and I was often reminded that I was only a Peace Corps Trainee and hadn’t yet crossed the finish line. It was hard. Every time I felt like I was getting into a groove, finding some normalcy, everything changed dramatically. I often felt displaced and lost, but I think that was intentional. The Peace Corps does a good job of making Trainees feel displaced during PST, which helps them adapt to their reality quickly, because integrating is composed of cyclical feelings of displacement.
I was surprised at how tired I was all of the time. More schedule than I am used to! What happened to river time? Africa time? Ethiopian time? Nope, this is Peace Corps Training time and that means you are either in transit to do something, doing something, planning to do something, or feeling awkward because you aren’t doing something and/or don’t understand something. A lot of foreign somethings to manage in one day.
When asked about the most rewarding aspects of PST, Sandra reflected:
. . . (it’s) a toss up between language training and teaching practicum. Learning new words and understanding some of the chatter around me gave me confidence that I would one day in fact know the language and integrate into my community. The teaching practicum gave me confidence in my job. Having never taught before, the two week practice run at Ethiopian education both gave me a better understanding of the system I am here to support as well as reassurance in both the need as well as my ability to serve . . . ”
Without a doubt the language training was the most challenging aspect of PST. Trying to develop significant conversational skills in any second language in a matter of 10 weeks is a considerable task. Thankfully, my LCF was always prepared, presenting the content of our lesson plans with varied activities in order to ensure a high level of engagement and comprehension.
No matter what you go through or what you feel or what you learn, on swear-in day you stand there proud and smile when they hand you that certificate. Because even if you aren’t sure that you can complete service, Peace Corps is I survived, I understood what was being taught and even though my language needs work I still have faith that I can get through it. Peace Corps said I was alright and so did my fellow Volunteers and that means something.
I was nervous about living with strangers, and I soon discovered that they were just as nervous about the American stranger who’d be living in their home. With time, the strangeness vanished and we became family, a real family that shared experiences that ranged from good, to not so good, to weird — and all in all, it was all good! Family Appreciation Day is my favorite memory from PST because of my preparation for the day. My host sister went shopping with me for a traditional dress. My host mother showed me how to properly wear it. My other host sister cleaned my shoes for me because she didn’t want me to ruin my dress. My host brother gave me a purse to accessorize my attire. And during the ceremony, I sat between my Ethiopian mother and my Ethiopian father like their proud American daughter.
For DeShantell, the most surprising thing about PST was:
. . . the level of support we received throughout the entire training. We had a great team of people who were ready to assist us with any and every problem imaginable. The only thing they were missing were superhero capes.
Note to Peace Corps: add superhero capes to next year’s budget proposal.