2. Shimeles, Shofars, & Shots

Shimeles, Shofars, & Shots
(Shimeles Abera Joro is a famous Ethiopian actor)
20.6.16 / Monday, June 20 2016

It’s currently the year 2008 in Ethiopia.

Really. The Ethiopian calendar is based on an alternate calculation of when the Annunciation occurred (the Virgin Mary receiving the news that she would give birth to Jesus); monks in Ethiopia believed the Annunciation was seven years before Europeans started counting the years (now referred to as the Gregorian calendar = G.C.). The Ethiopian calendar (E.C.) is the principal calendar used here, and it also serves as the liturgical calendar for Orthodox Christians in Eritrea and Ethiopia. So, while most of the world would recognize today as Monday, June 20, 2016, in Ethiopia, it is Monday, June 13 2008. This calendar difference has posed a recent challenge at my internship when trying to determine a student’s birthday according to the Gregorian calendar since official records list date of birth by the Ethiopian calendar. Because of additional differences with Leap Year calculations and New Year’s Eve starting points (New Year’s here is September 1st in the E.C. & September 11th/12th in the G.C.), there is no easy math formula to calculate the date between the two calendars. Luckily, there is an app I can use to convert an Ethiopian calendar date to a Gregorian calendar date, or vice versa. Typically, the dates between these two calendars vary anywhere between 7-14 days, 1-2 months, and 7-8 years. For example, my birthday is March 31, 1986 (Gregorian calendar), but my Ethiopian b-day is Monday, March 22 1978 – I get to be a 1970s baby here!

Another 1970s baby (E.C.) was celebrated last week: Dani’s husband Ayu turned 31. Melkam Lidet = Happy Birthday! Dani (our Ethiopia IFP Teaching Assistant) threw a surprise party for Ayu in Piassa (a lit part of town, especially on a Saturday night). I guess the pub (decorated with American sports team pennants, even repping the Denver Nuggets) was an arif (cool) spot, because we met “the Denzel Washington of Ethiopia” (as described by Ayu’s friends). Ayu was being ever-hospitable, the Hebesha way, sharing slices of his birthday cake with the other tables in the restaurant, and Shimeles Abera Joro was seated at one of the tables. He was kind enough to come over to our crew, shake hands, and pose for a photo; he’s the one seated in the center. Now, we need to see one of Shimeles’ films in the cinema this summer; I’ve seen his face on movie posters around town – the Denzel drama type. Apparently he’s also a stage actor, so hopefully we can catch him in a live production at The National Theater.

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I’ve now completed the first two weeks of my internship at Hope for Children (HFC), and I couldn’t be happier with this placement. Hope for Children is a dynamic Australian-based non-governmental organization (NGO). Their name is a bit of a misnomer though; while their programs certainly focus on supporting orphans and vulnerable children, their overall work encompasses youth, families, as well as women returning from the Middle East through education, health, and various livelihood initiatives. I’m sharing my time between two different HFC programs: Anti-Human Trafficking/Women and Child Livelihood Program as well as their Child, Youth, and Community Enhancement Program. Both programs brilliantly build upon my previous experience partnering with youth education and women’s empowerment. I’m continually impressed by the breadth and width of services that HFC is offering throughout Addis Ababa, and I plan on featuring a different component of this vibrant NGO in each blogpost.

I was surprised at my internship last week when a desk (just my size!) and rolling chair were carried into the communal work area; I now have a space to use all summer long. Big thanks to my addis sirra guedenyaoch (new work friends) for such a warm welcome! The office space is located on the second story of the HFC building, overlooking the lemlem (lush, green) garden area. A cool breeze enters the space whenever a window is open; HFC is in the Shiro Meda neighborhood, a mountainous area approaching Entoto (the tallest peak in Addis) so the temperature is cooler here than in our Haya Hulet hood. And now that the rainy season has begun, I’ve been bringing a puffy jacket with me to stay warm each day at work.

One of HFC’s programs that I’ve been thrilled to learn about is their vocational training restaurant, Bahir Zaf (which means “ocean tree”). The tree “symbolizes caring for communities and branching out to protect those in need – much like the restaurant which provides training for young people who are building their futures.” It’s a great social enterprise; the youth who work there are receiving practical training in food preparation, cooking, and service skills in order to lead to new job opportunities in the culinary and hospitality sector of Addis. Bahir Zaf is located in Haya Hulet, so we’ve already become frequent guests. Last Friday, our IFP group got to learn more about the concept behind Bahir Zaf, thanks to Danny, the restaurant manager. We got a peek inside the kitchen (where the young chefs were busy with a warm station, cool station, and bar prep) as well as their classroom space before we enjoyed our meal (seriously delish tapas, drinks, & dessert). Bahir Zaf has been in the works for about a year, but it only opened a few months ago, and it’s already a hit! It is the first of its kind on the continent (the original TREE restaurants are all located in Southeast Asia), but there are plans for a Cairo location to soon open. This first cohort of student trainees includes 20 youth between the ages of 14-24; along with practical training, they also receive daily life skill training and English classes. After spending 18 months together, they’ll be eligible to receive culinary certification from the government which can lead to careers in the growing tourism industry of Addis. View the Bahir Zaf website to peek at their diverse menu, which samples local cuisine as well as flavors from around the world. You can also learn more by “liking” Bahir Zaf on Facebook.

I’m generally a light sleeper, even while living on a noisy corner in Brooklyn, but I’ve been sleeping pretty deeply here – thanks be! My busy corner in BK prepared me well for Addis nights filled with echoing conversations, rooster crows, dog meet-ups, and general street traffic. I do stir a bit before dawn, as an Imam’s voice recites the Adhan (the call to prayer) into a microphone proclaiming Allah u Akbar: God is great or, like the past two Sunday mornings, I was pulled from dreamland by the sound of a shofar being repeatedly blown – at least a dozen times in succession. I was convinced that the shofar at 5am on a Sunday must have some religious significance within Orthodox Christianity, but when I asked Yosef, our beloved local IFP coordinator, he said the shofar is used for three purposes in neighborhood settings: 1) To indicate when someone in the community has died/a funeral is taking place; 2) To call for a meeting/community gathering 3) To notify neighborhood residents that someone is available to pick up donations from your home. I’m placing my birr (Ethiopia’s currency) on number 1 and assuming that someone passed away the past two Saturday nights and thus the Sunday morning crack-of-dawn shofar call. My third Sunday here (yesterday) did not include this shofar-alarm-system, but I’m assuming it’ll reappear at some point; its effectiveness for communicating loud-and-clear across the community cannot be denied.

Even though my initial shofar-assumption was off, the shared space of Christianity and Islam, the two major religions in Ethiopia (both monotheistic, born out of Abrahamic faith traditions), is felt even in the depths of the night here. And while religious land-grabbing is apparently a current issue in Addis, it sure seems like these two main religious identities are living amicably together, respecting one another’s practices, holidays, and spaces. The urban agriculture women’s self-help group we visited in Debrazeit is comprised of both Muslim and Christian women, working collaboratively to support one another. In my neighborhood, I regularly visit Muslim-owned businesses that have Christian patrons and Christian-owned businesses that have Muslim patrons. We wished “Ramadan Mubarak” to our Muslim neighbors at the start of Ramadan, and since a fasting season is now beginning for our Orthodox Christian neighbors, we’ll honor their practice as well. The nighttime breaking of the fast (Iftar) during Ramadan is noticeable when I walk down certain roads where strings of lights and upbeat music accompany multiple families joining in meals together. In my daily public taxi rides, I’ve noticed several of my fellow riders bowing their heads and making the sign of the cross whenever we pass a church. These minibuses are decked-out with religious symbols corresponding to the driver’s religion: you’ll find either photos of mosques/Arabic calligraphy/Qur’an passages OR decals of crosses/the Virgin Mary/blonde-ish Jesus (really, people?!) adorning the dash and inside of the windshield; many minibuses also feature decals of famous soccer players (and let’s be honest, futball is a global religion in its own right!). These tiny gestures speak to bigger patterns and ways of being — the entwinement of religion and culture here keeps me intrigued. I’m fascinated by a diversity of spiritual perspectives and lifestyles, so I’m on the lookout in this city for signs of interfaith support and collaboration.

Religion is discussed here on the regular; it’s not uncommon for someone to meet you and inquire about your religion. When exchanging names, I often hear someone state either, “Bible name” or “Muslim name” after introducing herself/himself. Different ideas concerning religion are also discussed openly at my internship site during the lunch break. The lunch conversations at HFC are lively; they’ve been the single best introduction to my internship placement. Although HFC is an Australian-funded NGO, the local staff and leadership are composed mainly of Ethiopian nationals (one of the aspects I respect most about this organization). Appropriately, the lunch conversation is (almost entirely) in Amareena (Amharic). I find myself listening hard, trying to pick out a word here or there, and piecing together what is being discussed. Sometimes, a new work friend will sit next to me and translate a bit, but since I’m working on building my Amareena vocabulary, listening/attempts at participating are the best way to do this! Furthermore, it’s a good experience to be the one outside the dominant language group, meaning my position as an Amareena language-learner gives me a glimpse of what English language-learners experience when immigrating/resettling to the US – an essential perspective to hold.

I’m so lucky to be able to share mesa (lunch) and shai/buna (tea/coffee) each day with the HFC team. I’ve mentioned that in the US it’s really rare for a worksite to take a shared break and eat together Monday-Friday; it sounds like it’s becoming less common in Addis too. This shared lunch is not an HFC mandate; it’s more from the staff self-organizing to make it happen, forming their own “finance committee” and “lunch committee.” Through pooling their money together, they’re able to employ a cook who prepares hot, flavorful, and nutritious meals each day. I’ve eaten at a fair amount of restaurants since arriving here, and I still think my weekday vegetarian lunch at HFC tops most restaurants! Every day I exclaim, “Yitefetal!” (delicious!). The HFC staff agrees with me, stating, “Awo (yes), we have an excellent chef.”

On my first day at HFC, I was able to meet the children and youth who attend the after-school program; they were gracious as I stumbled through my greetings in Amareena, trying to learn each of their names. Last week, I met with some of the high school students whose families receive financial support from HFC. After taking photos in HFC’s garden (much like a senior portrait session), I sat down to interview each student (to update their sponsor profile), inquiring about their family situation and their academic/vocational goals. I felt like I was back in my element: listening to high school students describe their life, what they like to do for fun, learning about their favorite subjects in school, and their career goals. Several of the students came for their interview with their mom, and I was continually struck by the fortitude of each mother, some teared-up as they described the lack of electricity in their home affecting their child’s evening studies, or how the water in their home is too expensive to use, so the mom opts to fetch water and carry it back to the home each day. The single mothers I met, several who are widows, were all working various jobs to try to cover basic expenses, expressing determination to foster an environment that would support their child’s education. I was honored to hear their stories; one thing I know is true — mothers the world over dream the same beautiful, bold dreams for their children.

One mother sat with a stitching project during our interview, her green and blue plastic-threads alternating to create a starburst pattern, demonstrating that this panel would be used to make a bursa (a purse). She let her daughter lead the conversation, but occasionally interjected when she had an idea about her daughter’s responses to my questions like, “What do you like to do for fun?” (enat = mom: “Oh, don’t forget, you like dancing too!” — gesturing with her shoulders) Her daughter beamed when she described how much she loved art, stating, “I want to be artist after I graduate.” At this declaration from her daughter, the mother smiled knowingly, still looking down at her handiwork – (what I perceived to be) pride in being able to share this family trade with her first-born.

Other students said they wanted to study computer science or accounting in University, another would like to be an Amareena teacher, and another, who’s being raised by her older siblings (after losing her father when she was one and her mother when she was six), is focused on becoming a lawyer. I have no doubt she will do just that! Financial support from HFC, whether through a monthly food allowance, medical bill reimbursement, or assistance with the costs of schoolbooks and uniforms, is a real lifeline for hundreds of students and their families. I’m eager to keep learning about how HFC implements grassroots development and service delivery through a variety of their Addis-based programs.

Addis Ababa is often referred to as “Africa’s political capital” or “the capital city of Africa” since it hosts the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). After several visits to the UN’s compound in Addis (where the ECA is located), as well as multiple letters and forms of ID to prove that we are indeed university students, we are now the proud-bearers of UN-issued photo IDs that allow us to utilize the United Nations Library here. It was quite the drawn-out process to secure these passes (if the UN is anything, it is levels and levels of, often unnecessary, bureaucracy), and our library pass applications even made it to the “investigation bureau” before we were able to receive the proper security clearance. Much gratitude to Yosef for his tireless coordination on this front (as well as in countless other areas).

In the same vein of (often unnecessary) bureaucracy, last week, several of our IFP members attended a networking event at the US Embassy. While the event-planner in me would have structured the event a bit differently (embassy figureheads aren’t always the best at planning social mixers), it was a worthwhile experience to see a bit of the inner workings of the US Embassy. I will give them props that they actually utilized my online STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) registration to know I was currently in Addis in order to extend an email invitation to the event. The US flag in the Embassy courtyard was hung at half-mast in recognition of the tragedy in Orlando. New friends and colleagues in Addis Ababa have repeatedly approached me after this news broke, expressing concern as well as compassion — know that grief is shared here along with the hope of creating a different world together.

One local group who expressed condolences about Orlando was a men’s hiking crew that Amanda and I got connected to via Yosef. This hiking group has existed here for 43 years, meeting every Sunday morning, and welcoming new members along the way. And they don’t mess around: we joined them for an 11K hike with varied inclines, taking a break midway through for group calisthenics, and then enjoying a big breakfast together afterwards. The general routine is the same every week, but they change-up the hiking location to keep it fresh. On the hike, they offered anecdotes about our surroundings, pointing out where the Olympic long-distance runner Kenenisa Bekele did his training. The founder of their group is no longer able to meet the physical demands of the hike, but we toasted to him as soon as he entered the restaurant. At the post-hike breakfast, we were initiated into the group via shots of Johnny Walker, said to be “the secret to their success.” We’ll likely join for another hike this summer, bringing the whiskey the next time around.