4. Minibuses, Mighty Buna, & Melaku Belay

Minibuses, Mighty Buna, & Melaku Belay
28.6.16 / Wednesday, June 28, 2016

My coworker is currently bumping MJ’s “Bad,” and we’re having a conversation about the differences in workplace dynamics in Ethiopia vs. the US, agreeing that no one can keep you motivated at work like Michael. As his playlist moves from MJ to Enrique Iglesias, our exchange turns to local salsa classes as well as traditional dance groups in Addis. I’ve been working my best shoulder shakes here (a sure staple in Habesha dancing), but I could certainly benefit from some official dance instruction too. For now, my teachers are the spunky, spirited girls in Hope for Children’s (HFC) afterschool program; they practice and perform traditional dances every Friday afternoon. HFC’s Youth Enrichment Center offers extracurricular activities and academic support, and one of my favorite aspects about this program is that it’s truly youth-led. The members of HFC’s Youth Action Team are all elected by the participants in the afterschool program and together, they facilitate study groups as well as clubs or teams like the Friday afternoon dance group. They also act as an advisory team so that HFC’s program planning, implementation, and evaluation have youth voices at the center. I’m all about this kind of youth empowerment, allowing for real leadership development through youth calling the shots. The Youth Enrichment Center also offers Saturday programs and scholarships for senior students going on to university or vocational training. I’ll soon be directly working with the students who come to the Youth Enrichment Center during HFC’s Summer Program, helping with English instruction, which will include conversation skills as well as overall academic support. I’m sure these students will help me practice my Amareena (Amharic) too.

One of the surprises of our summer in Addis has been daily Amareena classes. We had a spring Amharic course at The New School (shoutout to our instructor Sim!), one of the requirements of participating in the International Field Program (IFP), but even as the Program Coordinator for the IFP, I wasn’t expecting formal Amharic instruction to continue once in Addis. Thanks to Mark & Yosef for arranging to have weekday Amareena classes with our new teacher, Mewael. Mewael travels to both of our IFP houses each day, for a 90-minute class that rotates between 7am and 6pm start-times for each house. This has been a tremendous gift, and it keeps me accountable to the goal of growing my Amareena, rather than just relying on the same go-to phrases every day. Whenever I say, “Amareena temari negn” (I’m an Amharic student), it’s met with an enthusiastic response (usually a bit of laughter, raised eyebrows, and an exclamation like, “Gobez!” = great). And while I’m not always prepared for the dialogue (in Amareena) that ensues, I’m sincerely trying to keep up!

A guaranteed place where I can expect to practice my Amareena is on the minibuses. For some minibus assistants (typically teenage boys or young men), I’ve already become a repeat-customer on their van’s morning/afternoon route; we’ll usually banter back-and-forth, and if it’s a day where I can keep up with their jokes or teasing, then I feel like I can recognize actual progress being made. My daily commute to the HFC offices involves two to three different minibuses (essentially, public taxis that go to specific areas around Addis). If I’m lucky, I’ll only make one change to get to my final destination, but most mornings, I ride in three different vans, using my Amareena to greet or converse with fellow passengers, playing with little ones accompanying a parent on morning errands, and learning the different routes and streets of the city. Typically, I’m the only ferenj (foreigner) on my minibus routes and the only ferenj in the areas where I transfer to different minibuses; this is met with fascination, curiosity, or complete indifference, but I’m repeatedly told by locals that mastering the minibuses is “the real Habesha way” to experience the city. I have to agree; I’d much rather participate in this normalized transportation routine than be confined to a private taxi. There’s a certain exhilaration that comes with understanding a new-to-me transfer, how different neighborhoods connect to one another, or the sheer joy of navigating a city without a smartphone to lead the way. However, with the exhilaration also comes daily carsickness from the all the stop-and-go motion and the unavoidable diesel fumes in your face. After an hour-or-so-long commute, I always feel a great sense of relief/freedom when I can emerge from the sardine-packed van into Shiro Meda (my work neighborhood) or Haya Hulet (my home-sweet-home neighborhood).



I really love our home here, and our landlord (Ato Tesfaye) and his staff all take such good care of us. We are renting two houses this summer (a five-ish minute walk apart from each other), with five IFP members living in each house. My room is located on the third story of our building, providing a great lookout point to observe the comings and goings of Haya Hulet. It offers the perfect combination of city and nature, and that combo is an accurate description of Addis too: an urban center, yes, but also filled with lush plants and plenty of agriculture. The morning scene has soft sunlight (if rain doesn’t start the day) filtering into my room, joined by birds (vibrant reds and yellow-greens) chirping as they fly between pine trees and the balcony outside my door. Kindergarteners get dropped off by a parent or older sibling at the compound across from ours – their family member gives them a kiss goodbye and their teacher greets them with a kiss on the head (side note: I think we’ve lost something in the US when there’s more caution than welcome surrounding positive, safe embraces from teachers and caregivers in the ways that I observe each morning.) As I head out for work, I hear these young students singing the national song together or chanting nursery rhymes in a call-and-response format. To be fair, it’s not all birds and babes singing on our street – groups of dogs, scrounging for food, make their presence known, men selling mops and brooms announce their wares, a rooster crows, a car horn honks, and this is accompanied by the ongoing buzz of construction throughout Haya Hulet, a growing neighborhood.


The staff at our compound keep everything well-maintained. Beyond compound security, they collaboratively take care of the majority of cooking, cleaning, and laundry; suffice to say, we are plenty spoiled this summer. Although it can feel odd to have a housekeeper (probably because caretaking and cleaning houses was my income-source for years), it is quite customary here, and I’m grateful that the IFP can support additional job opportunities for folks in the neighborhood. I promised Tesfaye that I would give him and his staff a shout out in my blogpost; so, if you’re a friend looking for a great place to stay in Addis, hit me up: the location, property, and care can’t be beat. Last week, Tesfaye threw a party at the compound, complete with delicious megeb (food) and a coffee ceremony for our IFP group (wish you all could smell the incense that accompanies coffee ceremonies – apparently it’s a blend of frankincense or myrrh). I’m not usually a coffee drinker, but I’m happy to say, I now love Ethiopian buna (coffee). After being treated to arguably the best coffee in the world, how will I ever maintain as a coffee-drinker back in the states? Maybe it’ll just be a summer fling…



Coffee is said to have come from Ethiopia, and there are multiple accounts that describe its origin (9th/10th century). The story I’ve heard most involves an Ethiopian goat-herder, named Kaldi, who noticed “the energizing effects when his flock nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush,” so he decided to chew on the fruit himself. And “his exhilaration prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of their use and threw them into the fire, from which an enticing aroma billowed, causing other monks to come and investigate. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world’s first cup of coffee” (thanks, wikipedia). I’ve been impressed that major international chains (you know, the McDonaldsization of the world) are NOT in Addis, however, there are still local chains throughout the city. Kaldi’s (named after the aforementioned goat-herder who discovered the potency of the bean) is now the name of a bunabet (coffee house) chain here, essentially the equivalent of a local Starbucks. In the same vein of no international chains/companies here, there are also (currently) no international/foreign banks allowed here.



Along with participating in coffee ceremonies on the regular, I’m repeatedly seeing how hospitality in Addis is an abundant gift to both extend and receive. I was recently invited to the home of my friend Entisar’s older sister for an Iftar meal during Ramadan. Entisar and I have over a dozen mutual friends and connections in Colorado, and thanks to one of the dearest of these friends, Regbe (big up to YOU for connecting us!), we were able to link up this summer. Entisar grew up in Addis but moved with her mom to Colorado when she was 16. She’s now 21 and spending the summer visiting her family members here. Entisar works at the Global Refugee Center in Greeley (my hometown) assisting Amharic-speakers with translation and general community navigation. We have professional ties in common as well as close friends: some of my former students are now her Colorado besties. Entisar said it was essential for me to see multiple sides of Addis, so we met up in Piassa last week and took a taxi to her sister’s home in Birchiko. Being invited to an Iftar is such a special experience – the day’s fast is first broken with dates, and then the rest of the meal can begin. Evening prayers coincide with the meal, and food is shared communally. So many colorful dishes were spread on the tablecloth on the floor, reminding me of Somali cuisine more than traditional Ethiopian fare. It was wonderful to be in a home with a family, seated around the living room together, exchanging stories, playing with Entisar’s nephews, and learning more about each extended relative that stopped by the home that evening. Ramadan points to an acknowledgment and identification with those who go without food (a reality all too true right now in Ethiopia as a result of last year’s drought), and it allows for a shared practice among Muslims all around the world, not only through the month-long fast but also through Iftar, the post-sunset breaking of the fast. I was so grateful for the invitation to engage this season with Entisar and her too-too lovely family, and I’m looking forward to more time shared with them this summer.


Everyone in our IFP group was gifted with an Amareena/Habesha name from Yosef, several weeks back. I opted to keep my own name, because every time I introduce myself here, it is received warmly; people are pleasantly surprised to hear an easy-to-pronounce Ethiopian/Habesha name come out of my mouth: “Marte,” said like “Marta/Martha” (there’s no ‘th’ sound in Amareena). As for the rest of the crew, their Habesha names are as follows:

Ally = Allem (world)
Amanda = Aster (like, Queen Esther)
Damola = Tigist (patience)
Diana = Desta (happy)
Gina = Genet (heaven)
Greg = Gebremariam (servant of Mary), but just Gebre for short
Richard = Ras (king/head) Yonas Kebede (he wanted a first AND last name!)
Sarah – Tsehay (sunshine)
Sneha = Fiker (love, which is the same meaning of Sneha too)



Entisar (who’s currently an International Affairs minor) attended one of the workshops from our two-day New School Development Workshop Series, presented at YOM Institute for Economic Development. The topics included: Gender and the Care Economy (Aster & Fiker), Climate Change (Genet & Gebre), as well as Women in Agriculture (Allem & Yonas). Desta and I shared a workshop titled, “Food Systems in the US: Dominant and Alternative Ways We Grow and Get our Food.” The highlight of our presentation was probably the get-to-know-you BINGO game where YOM graduate students and our New School graduate students had to ask each other questions to become acquainted with one another and the various food practices represented in the workshop; it was a hit! The workshop series ended with a graduate writing seminar led by Tigist and Tsehay. As a result of the internship placements at YOM and the potential for future collaboration between our universities, a Memorandum of Understanding (a mutual agreement to continue partnering together) was issued following the workshop. Our weekly IFP seminar is also held at YOM, allowing us to continue interacting with YOM students and faculty each week.



One of the speakers at our weekly seminar (highlighting a different sector/field within Addis) was Christine (we jokingly call one another ‘namesake’ now since my middle name is Christine), an expert in the world of Ethiopian media and one of the most well-connected women in Addis. Christine has been directing us to some of the best local venues and events happening throughout the city, and I was so grateful she connected me to the #withrefugees events that were held at the National Library last week in honor of World Refugee Week. An art exhibit at the John C. Robinson American Center, inside the National Library, titled, “In Ethiopia, with Refugees” showcased photographs from refugee camp settings throughout Ethiopia and was on display throughout World Refugee Week. As of August 2014, Ethiopia was reported by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) to have surpassed Kenya as the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, sheltering an estimated 629,718 refugees at the time. I used this statistic when assessing refugee camp infrastructure in Ethiopia and Kenya for my Theories, Histories, and Practices of Development class last fall, but the reality of that statistic has yet to fully sink in. And considering that many refugees are living in city centers, not just camp settings, it is essential to learn more about the various refugee groups who live in Addis and are making a new home in this city.

There’s a significant divide to bridge between newcomer populations and Ethiopian nationals, a divide that’s unfortunately all too-common in cities hosting asylees and refugees throughout the world. Whether there’s an economic-based fear that new groups will “take jobs” from locals, a jealousy over resource allocation, or just general xenophobia/racism at play, refugees are not always welcomed into their new communities. A panel discussion at the National Library allowed for real dialogue, mutual learning/listening, and an opportunity to develop the practice of empathy. And while I assumed the panel would include voices from the most-known East African refugee groups like Eritrea, Somali, and Sudan, the panelists instead represented Burundi, Uganda, and Yemen. There are over 8,000 registered (key word) refugees in Addis Ababa (a city of roughly 3.5 million). Registered refugees are eligible to receive assistance for education and livelihood costs based on the size of their family unit. This assistance comes through a variety of stakeholders including UNHCR, the Ethiopian government, and Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS). The Urban Refugee Center, a local NGO partnering with JRS, provides services including educational training, counseling, and emergency aid such as rent and food support for recently arrived refugees. At the refugee panel event, I met Hanna, the director of the Urban Refugee Center, and she invited me to visit the center in the next few weeks.



The panelists discussed a variety of challenges they face in Addis including integrating into society, learning new languages, lack of affordable housing, dealing with name-calling/negative comments, missing family, losing loved ones, feeling lonely or unaccepted, trying to catch-up on missed education, day-care needs for young ones, and navigating financial burdens associated with school/clothing/food as well as sending remittances to family members in other areas of the world. I couldn’t help but think how similar these challenges sounded to various refugee populations living in the United States and how my former role as a Community Liaison for refugee/immigrant students and their families involved countless stakeholders in order to support various acculturation and adjustment needs of newcomers living in Colorado. When the panelists discussed some of their dreams and ambitions, I felt like I was listening to my former El Teatro students (a multicultural, multilingual theater group comprised of mainly refugee and immigrant high school students) describe how they were knitting together their life experiences in order to make a difference for other groups facing some of their same challenges. The dreams of the panelists included: becoming a business woman, a doctor, a psychologist, a lawyer, helping people with HIV, helping their mothers, and continuing to share dance as well as their art with the world. Since the panelists were all young people, listening to what they like to do for fun also sounded like my former students: dancing, listening to music, painting, studying/learning, playing soccer and volleyball, and just “chilling with friends.”

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the panelists:

“I’m a friendly person, and I have a lot of friends; I’m comfortable here.”

“My language is my identity.”

“I love when I meet someone from my country who is also living here.”

“My first happy memory is my mom. Even now, when I hear her name, I am happy.”



Significant responses from the audience included:

I didn’t know that Ethiopia is a home to refugees from Yemen.”
“I didn’t know that refugees are also living here in Addis, not only in the refugee camps.”

Among the panelists who shared their stories was Melaku Belay, a renowned traditional dancer, whose mother was a refugee for more than 16 years in Sudan. One of my favorite responses from Melaku was, “I speak the language of dance.” And he really does; Melaku travels the world as an ambassador of Ethiopian culture (with the group Ethio-Colour), sharing traditional music and dance, and he has made it his life’s work to make Fendika, an Ethiopian cultural center he founded 10 years ago (and my new favorite spot in Addis), accessible to a new generation. Last week, we ran into Melaku twice at Mama’s Kitchen (my other new favorite spot for live music — clearly we’re hanging out at the right local spots in the city). Every time we talk with Melaku, I am struck again by his humility, earnestness, and undeniable passion for what he does (truly, one of the purest souls). He is honoring his mom’s refugee story through his commitment to sharing his art (through dance) and in nurturing a platform for local artists to share their stories as well. Thankful to see people like Melaku who recognize that tradition doesn’t have to be frozen or static, but vibrant, audacious, and innovative.

Reflecting on World Refugee Week, I’m thinking of all the people I’ve met who’ve sought safety here in recent decades as well as those who were displaced as a result of internal conflicts in Ethiopia. My hope is that we would be good neighbors, offering real welcome to refugees, in Addis or wherever home may be. I’ve been getting to know Australian & English colleagues who are connected to HFC as staff and/or summer volunteers, and in discussing current events, like the UK’s vote to leave the EU and David Cameron’s subsequent resignation, we are all dismayed and discouraged at the state of the world’s attitude towards refugees. May #Brexit be a lesson for us all in regards to what fear-mongering and notions of isolationism can lead to; do we want to be people of compassion or people consumed by hatred and fear? The answer seems obvious, but so many power-hungry politicians are gaining traction by running on anti-immigrant/anti-refugee platforms throughout the world. But, I have to believe that those who are committed to a different way are louder than the #Brexit/#Drumpf voices. And small actions, like celebrating and honoring the art/music/dance of different cultures all throughout the world, are signs of solidarity — they can even be forms of resistance. May we seek out tangible ways to welcome, engage, learn from, and celebrate the traditions and cultures of newcomers in each of our communities.

For more information about Melaku Belay’s work, in Ethiopia or his world tours, visit his site here: melakubelay.com