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My First, Second, and Third “First” Day of Work

The first official day of work for everyone was the Monday after orientation week, on June 7th. After a 7am Amharic class, Gina and I headed to Addis Ababa University, with the help of our friend and interpreter, a university student named Thomas. He helped us with the commute to Sidist Kilo, the main campus. We took one mini-bus to Kasanchis and switched over to another. We then hopped in another mini-bus, amongst countless others on their daily commute. Gina and I sat in the front seat, with an unhindered view of the chaos that the driver was unphased by. He bobbed and weaved through packs of donkeys, cut off oncoming traffic, and religiously crossed himself when passing a priest or church (no pun intended). The stickers of Jesus, crosses, and various saints covered the windshield, reducing his visibility and increasing our anxiety. We arrived miraculously at the University, grateful and a little on edge; slightly different than a New York commute.

The Center for Human Rights, at the University, was a bit quiet, as we passed only one other person before finding a familiar face. Eager to start, we entered bubbly and ready for work. It turned out that the communication was lacking between the professor who organized the course we were going to teach and anyone in the center. With a blank look on the only familiar face we found, we hesitantly entered his office.

The man we spoke to was completely “in the dark” about what we would be doing and was “very busy,” making it an obviously inconvenient time to be bothering him. Professor Yitayew, was apparently out of the country until June 15th. We had mentioned receiving academic journals to edit and he suggested we work on those until we hear from the professor organizing the class we “will be teaching.”

Everyone involved including Mark, Yosef, Professor Yitayew, Gina, and myself were also “in the dark” about the details of the course. We now learned that the summer long course we had been preparing for would be a seminar-like workshop covering different topics, over the span of just one week, starting June 20th. To make matters worse, we were only responsible for one of those topics. It was June 6th, and I leave July 1st, so I was internally fired up. Had I come to Ethiopia to edit journals that I could easily do from a coffee shop with internet in Manhattan? I’m now here to potentially help teach a few days of “class” instead of a few weeks like we had been told?

We didn’t voice this to the man we had spoken to, because he was too busy. We went to the library to continue editing the journals we had been working on. In between editing we took sufficient breaks to complain. By edit, I mean to say completely restructure run-on sentences, five lines long, with words pulled from a thesaurus. Our job was to edit these, to be published in an academic journal and the work was far more tedious than either of us had anticipated.

After seminar that day, Gina and I sat down one on one with Mark and Yosef to voice our concerns. We didn’t see promise in the project we were supposed to work on at the center and were hoping to find a solution or alternative to make our remaining time worthwhile. I was emotional and frustrated and felt I was sitting and waiting for time to pass while crying out for my “skills” to be utilized. I wanted so desperately for my time here to be worthwhile and to make a contribution by the time of my departure. We discussed certain alternative options while still keeping the center in mind, scheduling a meeting with someone else later in the week.

Second First Day:

I spent the entire week feeling incredibly sick. I had a sinus infection coming on and was extremely exhausted. On Monday, after registering at the UN library in an exhausting beauracratic tug-o-war between buildings, I came home to nap for hours before walking down the street to find some injera to eat with the Shiro our housekeeper had made for us. I found a tiny shop with injera, feeling like I had hit the jackpot. Mistake.

I woke up Tuesday morning with an even more intense sinus headache and sporadic stomach pains before getting ready for the “real” first day of work. Jackpot, huh? I had indeed eaten overly fermented injera, the staple I had consistently put all of my trust in during my stay so far here in Addis, and now I had gotten sick from just that? We spent our time at work in the library again editing journals. Gina got the bulk of her editing done while I tried reading one line an hour through the fog in my brain and the pain in my stomach. It’s safe to say we left early.

Third First Day:

Gina and I headed to the center to work in the library yet again. I plugged my extension cord adaptor into the wall to charge my computer. The only way it would work was if the cord was pushed up, and stretched over my bag. No longer than two minutes, did I smell fire and look over to find smoke coming from behind my backpack. The chord had completely melted and burnt. That obviously caused a scene. I was bright red and flustered, trying to prevent unintentionally burning down the center.

We ended up completing the journals by the end of the day, working through an intense rainstorm that cut off all of the electricity except the computers luckily. The rain was pounding down in a cris-cross pattern I didn’t know was possible.

We got a taste of how it is to work at the center, especially during the rainy season. The electricity is incredibly unreliable and you need to be able to work through the inconveniences. It was a challenge working with the standard of internet and electricity that I take for granted and often expect when home in America. I have experienced the frustration of slow internet and lack of electricity in many parts of the world, but never before have I been responsible for getting work done in those conditions. At home we are so incredibly lucky for the reliability of our resources and it is often not until you experience the obstacles others go through just to get work done, that you can appreciate what you have.

Takeaways from work in Addis:

             There are many aspects of work in Addis that I continue to try and dissect. The stark contrast from the work ethic and pace in America was constantly brought to attention during my time in Addis. The communication is disjointed and often frustrating when it comes to trying to get work done. I learned that in order to get things done, I needed to be proactive in seeking out work and staying on top of communication. If I wanted anything to come from the experience, it was in my hands to do so. Ethiopians are often lax with time and while I may be overly excessive showing up 20 minutes early, I would never be 20 minutes late. Never 20 minutes late that is, without having to navigate Addis streets and traffic of course.

I don’t have much prior experience working in development besides a brief stint in (an incredibly organized) leadership training in Rwanda. It is my struggle now, trying to decipher if my heightened awareness of the difference in the way things work in Ethiopia and America, is because of Ethiopian culture or because of the resources in a third world country. I do believe that humans are created to adapt to their surroundings. To that degree, I believe that culture is shaped in part because of that. Working with what they have, Ethiopians have adapted from a rural existence to continuously restructuring their lives to the rapidly developing Capitol city. Even having lived in the Capitol their whole lives, I spoke to many people who explained to me how it constantly evolves. Every day must seem like a “first” day to them.

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Coffee, Lessons, and other souvenirs

How often do you take the time out of your busy day to think about your contribution to society? This isn’t a guilt trip, because that would be sheer hypocrisy on my end. I so often let “life” get in the way of life. By this, I mean, I am so busy being busy that I forget to take a breath and contemplate what I am really doing. Am I truly happy? Am I on the path I want to be on? What is life? You know…the simple questions. I was confronted with a question while walking down the street with a fellow IFPer, Amanda. A loud and personal-space-invading man asking for money, stuck his hand in our faces shouting, “What the what?!” We were a little caught off guard, slightly irritated by his persistence, yet later playfully giggled with one another, because the existential question he had just shouted in our faces was far deeper than I am sure he intended. What IS the what?

The redundancy of my words quite literally plays upon my utter confusion and disorientation during my time in Addis Ababa. I was constantly asking myself or those with me, “What is going on?” More often than not, I had no idea, sparking a plethora of questions and discussion amongst the group.

I believe that it is through this confusion, while navigating foreign places and cultures that you learn not only about your surroundings, but also yourself. Yes, the cliché of finding yourself through getting lost is extremely true, and I shamelessly live by it. It was on this particular trip that I once again, found out more about myself. I owe this in equal parts to the intelligent and hilarious New School students I experienced this with, the disorienting puzzle of Ethiopian culture I tirelessly attempted to solve, and in the least self-promoting way possible, myself.

The group of nine students I was lucky enough to join on this journey, were a wonderfully colorful, ambitious, s m a r t (did I already mention that?) group. Due to this, I was initially intimidated. Being the only undergrad in the program, I couldn’t help but doubt my ability. I felt like I was behind, having joined so late in the game, and for personal reasons, less capable because of my level of education. (This was the first of my preconceived notions to be proven false.) After the first class in New York I left feeling uncharacteristically timid, anxious (characteristically), and enlightened. I remembered a quote that was the motivating factor in my decision to go; “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I was definitely in the right room.

The class discussion was a heated one on the topic of “voluntourism” and the harm it does on developing countries, when approached carelessly. I had one of those moments where you hear something you had never thought of before and have to realign your life view in the blink of an eye. I had always wanted to travel and “do good,” and I didn’t really know how to best achieve that. Our professor Mark prepared us for our trip (and my life realignment) by stressing that we constantly think critically in all that we do:

  • Are we taking jobs that we are not necessarily trained to do like build houses? Could we instead aid their economy by helping open up new job opportunities for their society?
  • Are school clothing and material drives to ship to “Africa” the best way to provide necessities? Could we instead sell materials and use the money to buy locally in countries of need? (Mark would be happy to elaborate)
  • Are you thinking “critically” about the work that you are doing? Are you doing the best that you can? Could you be asserting yourself in different areas that could be of more help?

I started thinking differently about my ultimate goal in life, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be around these people. I wanted to surround myself with people who have similar passions and drive. They did not disappoint.

I knew I was around the right people when it only took 30 minutes upon arrival, before the topic of discussion was, “have you pooped yet?” This, and shortly after, the opposite end of the spectrum, were frequent greetings. The openness in the group fostered a safe space for deep discussions about what we were seeing, how we were feeling, and our thoughts on the continuous reel of conflict and destruction as seen through the looping graphic news on Al Jazeera (the only tv channel in our house). This safe space in house 1 was called the “round table,” where we shared our thoughts every night; many of which were candlelit (for lack of electricity rather than ambiance), passing rice and scrambled eggs on the “lazy susan”, and on my end of the table, sometimes shedding tears. The group as a whole enhanced my experience by encouraging one another to continue to think critically as well as creating a safe space I called home in the center of chaos. To them, and their ability to #letitgowild, I am eternally grateful.

Another factor that enhanced my experience, was the puzzle of Ethiopian culture I tried to make sense of. It was those questions that popped into my head every day when walking through the streets, that I mulled over, and then talked with the group about. Is the rapid pace of development causing everyone to create jobs like the young boys charging to weigh people? Will these new jobs be sustainable? How is the education system structured? How do pregnant women or those with young children navigate the rocky and often hazardous sidewalks? More often than not, those questions were later answered by locals and colleagues. Addis residents, young and old, are creating innovative jobs to stay afloat in the competitive and fast-paced capital city. Interestingly, for college applicants, the test scores for men and women are weighed differently, in order to encourage more women to attend. Many Ethiopians brush their teeth with “mefakia” which is a natural wooden toothbrush sold on the side of the street (another booming business), a safe alternative to the tap water approach my chronically ill colleagues took to brushing teeth.

            It is the quirky differences in Ethiopian culture of which I am constantly intrigued. Often the differences aren’t cultural as much as a way of life in adaptation to their surroundings. I learn more about the people through noticing and inquiring about the little details and the big questions.

The last of which I owe thanks to the overall experience would be myself. I owe it to myself, that I was able to push past personal obstacles and temporary hardships along the way. It was in certain times of doubt of the overall experience that I have to thank myself (and reinforcement from my friends) for turning it around. It was yet another reminder that at the end of the day, it is only me who is in complete control of how I feel about a situation. Though in times I may not control the outcome of a situation, I have full power in how I approach it and I have the ability to turn a negative into a positive.

Shakespeare once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” I constantly remind myself of this, and had to replay these words in my mind during my time in Addis. Things were not how I had expected, initially making me angry and discouraged. It was that disappointment that I had to reassess. If I didn’t have those expectations to begin with I would not have felt the way I did. More importantly, I would be doing myself more harm holding onto those expectations, rather than letting them go and making the best of an unfortunate situation. Adapt, adjust and be flexible. My biggest takeaway from this experience working in development is that you have to be able to roll with the punches. Shit happens.

 

Self-Empowerment Trip

I am currently en route to Lalibela. This is a huge deal for me, being the first time I’ve travelled alone. Sure, I’ve been flying alone since I was 7, but I’ve never explored a city by myself; especially a city in a country where I don’t speak the language. I’m nervous, but I can’t tell if it’s the excitement of seeing Lalibela, or because I have a seat on the airplane with a view of the propellers.

It was 5:15 a.m. when Abraham, the only taxi driver with automatic windows picked me up in front of the gate to our house, amid the pitch black and pouring rain. The thought of walking down the street was terrifying because of the lethal combination of my fear of the dark and that Gina’s witch warned her to NEVER walk alone. For 150 birr, I got a ride to the airport, which is what other taxis charge us firenge for a short ride to good Wi-Fi and an overpriced macchiato.

Standing in line is a completely disregarded concept in Ethiopia, and I should have known upon arrival when I was nearly run over by a crowd trying to leave through a single exit. This time, entering the airport, people were coming from every angle. Those who had less baggage took it upon themselves to cut the line and go ahead in front of everyone. It’s difficult being overly polite in someone else’s country when you seriously won’t get anywhere without being a little pushy.

Going to the gates, there was no clear indication if I was at the right one. I was in fact, at gate 8, but don’t we all know that gate numbers aren’t permanent? There was a looping advertisement on the only TV screen by the gate about Hawassa, and their “good governance,” “hospitable people” and “beautiful place.” Was I waiting for Hawassa? I wouldn’t know… The announcements after all were only in Amharic. I went up to the man at the front of the gate to be sure. “Gate 8d?” “Yes” he cut me off before I could clarify by saying Lalibela. I trusted him… But that hasn’t always worked out in the past.

Through the deafening crackly speakers and the dense Amharic, I made out “Lalibela.” With a small crowd that rose, I stood and made my way up front. Handing over my ticket to an agent who barely looked at it, I was not filled with confidence I was in the right place, as there was no electronic checker to indicate if you were on the right flight.

Through the light drizzle, I walked out to the bus that was taking us to the airplane. A woman walked on with a cute, screaming baby and she sat down quickly and furiously whipped out her breast. I was taken aback. Ethiopian culture, as I have experienced, is very reserved and private, especially amongst the women.

First day in Lalibela:

I got picked up from the airport by my tour guide as arranged. “You also get free African massage when in town,” he said. I thought, wow, this splurge really was worth it. Not to be confused with a Swedish massage, I shortly found out he meant the bumps in the road, which was only comparable to a carnival ride that shakes you ferociously.

The pictures for The Sora Lodge (and reviews) were why I chose to stay there, but no images could do it justice. From my spacious balcony, I had a 180 view of mountains for as far as the eye could see, with a view of the sunrise and the faint sounds of children playing. It was the ultimate dream and break I needed from the chaos in Addis. We got coffee and obviously shiro (along with the vegetable platter because it was fasting Friday) and looked out at the unbelievable vast mountains. No sugar needed in my coffee with that sweet of a view.

My tour guide mentioned that if his client was okay with it, I could join them on their way to the church (making it much cheaper). She complied and I jumped in the van, driving a good hour and a half out of the way if not longer due to the road conditions and livestock obstacles. I was originally hesitant despite wanting to visit the church, because of the daunting $60 price tag on the ride out there. I was assured it would be cheaper, if shared. His client, Betty from Austria was happy to have me come with them. I joined them on their hour and a half mission out to see Yemrehana Kristos, an 11th century church that predates those in Lalibela.

The drive out there was anything but smooth and often nauseating. Betty was sound asleep in the front seat, precariously balancing her incredibly heavy camera with a lens the size of a small child on her lap. She missed a plethora of wild cows, donkeys and sheep slowly wandering into the middle of the road. I was thoroughly impressed she could sleep through the incessant honking and frequent slams on the accelerator from our driver.

Pulling into the town at the base of the hill upon which the church sits, we passed a gathering of what seemed to be the entire village. We paid 300 birr before climbing the hill to the church. The altitude didn’t make the trek a walk in the park and walking with a chatty couple from Pennsylvania didn’t make breathing any easier. We passed through a Juniper forest, and reached the underwhelming wall surrounding the compound, built in 1980 to preserve the site.

We took off our shoes at the entrance and walked into the cave. Legend has it, that the cave was carved into the side of the mountain, where the Axumite church was built in marble and wood, around the 11th century. The area was extremely quiet. The man at the door to collect shoes and a sleepy priest inside the church seemed to be the only people around. The quiet, (despite Haptamu’s inopportune explanations at volume ten when they should be at a two), added an element to the visit that is often lost when surrounded by other tourists. We walked around the edges of the church, admiring the architecture, which is unbelievably sturdy for being so ancient.

King Lalibela himself is supposedly in the tomb covered in a bright cloth, sitting in the back of the cave. Next to the two graves, sits a mass of skeletons contained behind a chained-link fence. Though the exact number isn’t known, it wavers between 5,000 and 11,000. The sheer magnitude of bodies is shocking nonetheless. Pilgrims came to the site while on a pilgrimage, and having reached the peak of their mission, they had no desire to return home, deciding instead to die and remain in the cave forever. It was a close call for me as well, a naturally clumsy and off-kilter human being, as I climbed atop a wobbly stump to see over the fence, where I almost fell to join the pilgrims.

We entered the church by way of the sleepy priest, admiring the intricate carvings and paintings on the ceiling. He brought out the ancient crosses and a stool carved by the king himself.

After exploring for about an hour, I waited outside of the church to admire the architecture, while Betty prayed inside. A woman, distressed and emotional, came in to pray and speak to the priest through tears. Haptamu translated that someone in the town had just passed away, (hence the group of people crowding together upon our arrival.) The man was feeling pain in his head, and abruptly passed away 30 minutes later. He was only 48 years old. I felt so terrible for this woman. I thought, ‘she must be close to him.’

We walked out of the cave, took a good look back at the hillside and hanging Juniper trees before making our way back down the hill. We turned the corner, and heard wailing and crying from what sounded like hundreds of people. That was no mistake.

Hundreds of people, young and old, wailed and chanted while climbing the steep and rocky hillside. A handful of the men in the community carried the covered body of the man who had passed, some with boulders for the grave, others with children. I was hit with a wave of emotion, trying to fight back tears while frantically searching for the appropriate Amharic phrase to express my condolences as people passed by me. I just tripped over my words, smiled sadly, nodding my head out of respect and fully absorbed the moment. The entire community came to mourn together and support one another, despite potentially not even knowing the man who had passed. I had never experienced anything so beautiful in my life. (Video could not be posted, but is worth seeing for yourself @snlazar)

We left the town to their mourning and carried on with our journey, unable to shake the chills.

Our next stop was off the beaten path and Haptamu said he had never taken a tourist before. We walked down a steep hill, across a river, through a wooded area, before arriving at a monastery. He talked a nun into taking us up another incredibly steep hill to see where they live, giving us an opportunity to interact with some of the nuns, who welcomed us warmly into their home.

The day over all was pretty magical and I was still shaken by what we had seen earlier. As we got back to our hotel, Betty told me that she wanted to take care of the ride and that one day when I am traveling I will meet a student and do the same for them. I was so touched and grateful for the gesture and she wouldn’t accept my money. Later that night I went to the restaurant to get dinner where I ran into Betty and her friends, a couple from the Netherlands. They insisted I join them and we shared a bottle of wine, laughing and talking about life for over three hours. At the end of the meal, Betty yet again insisted she pay. That day was so good for my soul, restoring a little faith in humanity, which had been dwindling due to the chaos in our world.

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Day Two in Lalibela:

For followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Lalibela is the major pilgrimage site in the country. In the town of Lalibela, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are eleven total churches, split into two groups (northern and southern), but connected through underground pathways. It is incredibly difficult to pinpoint an exact date of creation, but the group has been dated from the 7th to 13th century. Ethiopian culture dates the entire groups construction to the time of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela during the 12th century. Many believe that the king carved the churches during a 24 hour period with the help of angels. What I saw was nothing short of a miracle.

The second morning I woke up ready to tackle all eleven churches in one day. Haptamu and I went through the first group of five, learning a bit of the background behind each individual church and observing the devout kissing the walls. After the first set of churches he took me through the open-air market. The gathering of locals and farmers from miles out of town, brings hundreds of people together to sell their goods. We bobbed and weaved through packs of donkeys for sale, meticulously stepping on any uncovered ground I could find while stepping over women selling teff- a local grain used to make injera, spices, onions, chickens, sandals, spices, furniture; a space for anything you could possibly need. I was the only foreigner walking through the chaos, and was followed often by little children and the echoes of voices herding me to their stand.

I was completely exhausted just from the market, and had time to rest and eat during the time the churches close between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.

We went to the second group of churches, recharged and eager. I was not prepared for the rain, yet undeterred by its insistence. The rain made each church a dark and dank escape, and a place to ditch our muddy shoes.

The most famous of the churches is Bete Giyorgis, a large cross carved out of tufa, a type of limestone, dated to the late 12th century. Though not the first “Eighth Wonder of the World” I have seen, the sunken church still holds just as much shock value considering the time it was built. For most of the churches, the sheer size and beauty has to be seen in person to absorb fully.

I had met two girls from Spain earlier that day that I tried to help plan their time out in town. That night, Habtamu was glad to have them join us at the local watering hole where we enjoyed Tej, yet not enough to help me dance with my shoulders like Ethiopians were built to do.

Day Three in Lalibela:

            I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to attend mass at Bete Amanuel while the sun was still down. Observing briefly, we relocated to my favorite of the churches, Bete Gabriel-Rufael, as it was the holiday celebrating the archangels of which the church was named after. Luckily I had a white scarf with me to cover my head, as I began noticing hundreds of people around me in only white clothing. I didn’t need another reason to stick out in the crowd. We stood outside, in a covered walkway separated by a bridge connected to the church, watching people praying along with the priest over the loud speaker. The holiness of the place itself was palpable, as followers knelt down kissing the ground, or perched up against a wall, hugging the stone. Thousands in white swarmed in as the sun rose, lining the edges of the surrounding hill. It was a great way to end my trip, surrounded by the people of Lalibela, who love their town as much as the tourists who stop through.

Research Writing Workshop

 

The preparations leading up to the workshops at the Yom Institute began while back in New York. We were given a prompt and discussed ideas as a class about our individual partner projects. My partner Damola and I are both writers, and were paired together to lead a Research writing workshop for grad students at the Yom Institute of Economic Development, in the summer before they were completing their thesis’. After creating an outline and coming up with activities in New York, preparations got put to the side for a bit through the chaos of our busy schedules in Addis. The requirements shifted and more focus and importance was shifting from our other work to the one-day intensive workshop.

The schedule came out for the workshop weekend, and Damola and I were not on it. We were encouraged to attend the entire workshop, so we spent Saturday and Sunday assisting and participating in our colleague’s workshops covering topics spanning from food systems to the care economy. The weekend workshop concluded and we discussed how everything went despite not being completely done. Still with no scheduled time for the research writing workshop, and no announcements about it even existing, Damola and I felt pushed to the side and forgotten.

We worked hard on organizing activities and waited patiently to find a time during the week that would work for us to go back to Yom. Wednesday night following the workshops was finally set aside for us and hoped there would be at least five students who showed up despite no announcements.

We arrived at the Yom Institute incredibly early to be sure of no problems. An hour prior to our start time, we received an email informing students about the workshop which we felt was a little last minute for anyone to show up after a long day of school and work.

A pile of “writing toolkit” packets were stacked by the front door of the room (we eventually got unlocked) consisting of templates for creating proper citations, how to organize your sources, and how to write a proper and concise thesis. These we felt would be great for the students to reference throughout our presentation and to keep during their writing process. As we should have expected, we ran into a nearly detrimental technical difficulty, when the computer would not connect to the overhead projector with our entire slideshow presentation. We went through a few students’ laptops offered to us to use during the workshop.

More and more people filled the room as we frantically tried to get the slideshow to work. Unfortunately Mark and Yosef were unable to attend our workshop, so we tried the best we could on our own to organize. When Dani (a former IFP student who organized the workshops), arrived, she told us to just do it off of the screen on the computer. To let Damola and a student work on the computer a bit longer, I jumped into our first activity, which was a madlibs icebreaker. I called on each student, asking them to say their name out loud, followed by the word needed to fill in the blank. This was a way to try and start getting students out of their shells and comfortable in the room. It ended up being really funny and enjoyable for the whole group, yet not long enough to delay the work on the projector.

We were screaming on the inside, but just sweating on the outside as we attempted to present our thorough WRITING presentation on a 13” computer screen in front of a group of 26 students who despite persuasion an mild begging, wouldn’t move to the front of the room. It was going to be an entire hour and a half of damage control. We tried to speak as loud as we could an annunciate everything as there was no point of reference on a visible screen for the students to follow along. We covered the proper sentence structure of a thesis and how to make your argument strong, understood, and properly backed up with cited sources. The next activity this led into was a “thesis speed round.” We provided writing prompt to the class:

“Say hypothetically, the government wants to reallocate their funds for education and, instead, invest the money in road and sidewalk infrastructure projects. Argue which option would be more beneficial for citizens of Addis Ababa.”

 

With what we thought was a clear, culturally sensitive, and h y p o t h e t i c a l prompt, we asked the class to 1) take five minutes on their own to write a thesis statement for their argument 2) There will be two rows of chairs facing one another. Sit in a seat directly in front of a classmate, and exchange the sheet of paper with the thesis statement written at the top (with space below). Under your classmate’s thesis, write one constructive criticism or a sentence of feedback on the same sheet. If there is time left in the TWO minutes, discuss. When you hear “switch!” exchange back your paper, so that you have your thesis in your hand. One row will move one seat to their left. Repeat. 3) At the end, you will have a sheet with your peer’s feedback.

The intention of this exercise was to practice having to think critically when given a prompt, stick by their argument, write a proper thesis, and be able to get feedback on their thesis statement to learn how to work on others in the future. We put on some Ethiopian jazz on my phone, and began the activity. With just a few more hiccups, the students got the hang of the activity and were actually having fun. By the time their sheets were filled, we ended the activity. Rearranging the chairs back, we had everyone sit down, asking for any volunteers to share their thesis with the group which we initially intended to do anonymously.

Two students volunteered to discuss, a fellow IFP student, Amanda, and a Yom Student, Kirubel. We began with Amanda’s, writing it on the board and dissecting it with the class. We discussed all that she did well, and had some students challenge her ideas. We soon learned that the students took the prompt very literally, and thought deeper into the issue than we had intended. We wanted solely to get across the idea of the sentence structure, but the Yom students were more worried about what the reallocation of funds would do to the city. They were critical thinkers, and discussed with one another why it would or wouldn’t work and what would happen.

We moved on to Kirubel’s statement, which took a little longer. It was a little difficult as a grammar freak to be working on sentence structure with students whose second language is English. While the ideas are in depth, words are often left out or in a place we wouldn’t traditionally put it. Damola wrote it on the board, as we had to think quickly on our feet how to properly edit the sentence. We worked through it as a class and ended up restructuring the sentence with the help from volunteers.

One moment that stuck with me, and is probably my proudest moment of the day, was when one particular student, whom single-handedly challenged most everything we said, yet again tried to question what we were teaching. He asked, (in summary), “If this is the thesis statement, then where does the problem statement go?” Most everyone was quiet. He had mentioned the “problem statement” multiple times, but nobody knew what that was, including myself. After a 3 second pause, I jumped in with a broken down answer using hand gestures. What came out of my mouth was complete improvisation, but sounded incredibly convincing and completely accurate based off of what I would assume a “problem statement” would be. His face softened, now understanding the concept, and didn’t challenge us again. I felt Damola as her eyes widened, nodding in support of what I had just said.

What I learned through the workshop proved to be very valuable. We were constantly challenged on how we were teaching research writing as we know it. We were teaching what we had learned with regards to proper grammar and sentence structure, but it is not how they were taught. I understood that it must have been slightly confusing for some to be learning a new writing method, while having learned an alternate way up until that point. Despite some confusion, the session proved to be very valuable. The students, though late at night, were eager and enthusiastic to continue working. Many of them came up to us after thanking us yet again; telling us how valuable the session was, despite our insecurities or technical difficulties.

With certain obstacles in the way, we pulled off a pretty great session with incredible energy. The only thing I would have changed would have been the ability to have more time or repeat sessions because of the dense material we tried desperately to break down to be understandable and quick. It was an overall great experience getting to know the students at Yom, and working with them for a few days through the entire workshop.

HARMONIOUS RELIGION AND GENDER DYNAMICS IN ADDIS ABABA

As is the case of any individual who is visiting or new to a country, I made several observations in my first week of living in Ethiopia. Perhaps what I found most appealing was the warmth and easy-going nature of the locals in Addis Ababa. It was not difficult to strike up conversations with a wide array of people; I socialized with the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, residents of my neighborhood, and even random passerby’s. Aside from the fact that Ethiopians are very sociable, their ability to speak English has played a crucial role in facilitating communication.

Secondly, the hospitable nature of Ethiopians is something that I immediately took notice of. The first time I experienced it was when the landlady offered to prepare a traditional meal for my roommates and I. Although I declined to be polite, she insisted. Later on that day, she called everyone downstairs and had a huge spread that consisted of Injera, various kinds of Wot and the local wine, Tej. Even after serving us, she continuously offered us additional helpings and proceeded to place more food in front of us despite our insistence that we were full. My second encounter was at a café in our neighborhood. A man sitting next to me was having lunch and invited us to join him. I thanked him and declined but my roommate who was sitting with me at the table shared a couple of bites with him and that made him very happy. It has been my exposure to these aspects of the culture that has made my experience of living in a new country more comforting and allowed me to adapt to my new setting far quicker than I expected.

It appears that the gender dynamics in Addis Ababa were not as conservative as I had expected or had been told to expect. When I refer to the gender dynamics, I am talking about the interactions between the different sexes. After just a few days of being here, I got accustomed to seeing young couples holding hands and being physically familiar. Also, after asking several individuals about the nature of relationships and marriage, they all gave me the same answer. I was told that majority of the youth in Addis Ababa specifically, will have a boyfriend or girlfriend that they have met either at school or at work, but their parents cannot know about their significant other. Only when they meet their parents and ask for their hand or marriage or make the intentions of marriage clear, will their families be made aware. In the meantime however, they will go out in public to restaurants, dance clubs, etc. and be known as a couple amongst their circle of friends.

An observation that I found quite interesting was the religious makeup of the city. Although I had known beforehand that Ethiopia has a sizable Muslim population, it was surprising to find that Muslims have such a visible presence in Addis Ababa, considering that the Christian religion dominates Ethiopian culture. On my first night in the capital, I awoke to the morning call for prayer emanating from a nearby mosque. Also, I have come across several Muslim owned shops and seen Muslims walking the streets of different parts of Addis Ababa and working at some of the organizations that we have been to. Furthermore, it appears that on the surface or at the social level, the relations between the two religious groups are harmonious. I took great comfort in witnessing that firsthand and being conscious of it.
I would say that overall my experience and observations here in Addis Ababa has been positive and refreshing for the most part. For one, the food and people are great, the culture is rich and the history is profound. Not to mention that I get mistook for a local frequently, which tends to work in my favor at times. However, I struggle with having to see beggars, especially street children and the disabled, so destitute, helpless and clearly unable to access assistance from the government. In addition to the scaffolding and construction at every turn in the city, this issue is perhaps the most challenging sight to get accustomed to seeing daily. Lastly, although many people speak English in this city as I have previously mentioned, the fact that I barely speak any Amharic makes me feel disadvantaged at time, unable to grasp the full experience of living here and discourages me from exploring my surroundings at times. But I hope that over the course of the two months of being here, my knowledge of the language will increase, which will then allow me to have a more fulfilling experience here in Addis Ababa.

ECONOMETRICS OR BICYCLE MECHANICS?

Less than one month ago I sat alone in a side conference room of the New School library close to to 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Facing a disarrayed spread of graded assignments, class notes, and textbooks, I wondered if the school stress would eventually pay off. Who was I to think that passing an Econometrics exam would lead to positive change for 80% of the world living in poverty? Maybe I should have gone to trade school, learned to fix bicycles and support myself as a mechanic. Wouldn’t I be happy that way, if not self-sufficient?

These questions were quelled this past Monday on my first day interning with Wide Horizons for Children (WHFC). Some time after 9 a.m. at the WHFC offices, I sat down with two New School colleagues and Atsede, a late-twenties Ethiopian social worker with a soft, gap-toothed smile. Atsede explained the organization’s “Economic Empowerment Program” which provides monthly stipends of 350 birr (about $17) to poor, mostly single mothers. The stipends are invested in micro-businesses, such as yarn to weave baskets or teff grain to cook injera for local restaurants. Once the business proves profitable for a number of years, the client qualifies for a grant ranging between 5,000 and 20,000 birr ($250 to $1,000). The lump sum pays for improved technology or additional materials allowing the recipient to become financially independent and “graduate” from the program.

After running through the details and sharing a buna (Ethiopian coffee), Atsede took us interns to the homes of three women in the Economic Empowerment Program. First we met Birhane, who sells plastic jewelry and hair accessories to her neighbors in an Addis slum. Birhane was widowed 15 years ago while pregnant with her first child. Without any family support, she nearly gave birth on the street until a stranger brought her to a hospital. Birhane later moved into the dirt-floored hovel smaller than my college dorm room where we heard her story. Equipped with one light bulb and no running water, these spaces were originally provided by the government as places of business but eventually became homes for Addis’s poor. Birhane reluctantly remarried in order to ward off men from entering her home and harassing her every night. She bore two more children with her second husband who occasionally brings by a few dollars of child support.

As Birhane recounted her life since entering motherhood, her expression shifted between sadness, gratitude, distress, humor and fear. I often heard her say “exabiermeskin” meaning “thank god” in Amharic. At one point she waved her hand across the narrow room and laughed, “This is how we live.”

Birhane told us that as a young girl she was eager to learn, but her family could not afford good schools. For that reason Birhane’s first priority is her children’s health and education. She saves money from her unstable income to send her eldest child, 14 year-old Dhine, to after-school tutoring.  Dhine is the top student in her district, loves biology and physics, and is determined to win a scholarship so she may attend a private high school and university.

After leaving Birhane we drove a few minutes to the home of Sayie, who lives in a slightly larger shack with her sister and daughter. Sayie sells handwoven baskets and potholders to her contacts at the Swedish Embassy. Before meeting WHFC, Sayie made string by ripping plastic bags into thin strips. She uses her stipend to buy colored thread and hopes to one day purchase a sewing machine.

Finally we met Aster, a 39 year-old grandmother who, for the past 18 years, has washed her neighbors’ clothes in plastic buckets.  Transporting water by hand in 2 to 3 gallon containers, Aster built a reputation as the neighborhood laundress. She saved 3,000 birr supplemented by a 7,000 birr grant to purchase a washing machine. The investment will increase Aster’s electricity bill by 200 birr per month, but she expects the advanced technology to improve her market share and efficiency. Aster supports 5 family members who live in her small, tin-roofed home. She hopes to begin saving enough money to qualify for public housing, which the government promises to build in the next three years. Aster has lived with HIV for 13 years, and has been taking ARD for the past seven.

So, will the pressures of final exams, thesis deadlines, and student loans pay off after two years at the New School? Upon remembering how fortunate I am to ask these questions, it seems they already have.

SOUVENIRS TO COFFINS IN MERCATO

My visit to Mercato, allegedly the largest African market, was attention-grabbing. The vastness of the market and its different sections permit foreigners to go with locals, as it is easy to get lost and pick-pocketed. However, it was amazing to see the various articles for sale from souvenirs to coffins. The walkway throughout the marketplace was narrow and filled with young boys and young men transporting goods on their heads to locals and merchants buying wholesale and individually. Many transporters had piles of garbage cans for sale on their heads, yards of fabric, huge boxes with merchandise for sale, house appliances, etc. The hustle and bustle of the marketplace included vendors from many different regions giving me perspective into the different features and cultures within Ethiopia.

Environment and Development Pt 1

Alula’s presentation Wednesday evening on the Economic Policy Analysis Unit (EPAU) think-tank he currently works for, gave insight into the government’s outlook on the construction in the city and the future of Ethiopia. The push for development in Ethiopia has always been undermined by the country’s landlocked nature. Industrial policies, macroeconomics, trade and logistics are all affected due to the country’s location forcing them to use Djibouti as its trade port. By opening up the Ethiopian market to foreign investors and increasing the private sector, there is major concern for the implementation of modern policies instituted by the government.  Prior to my arrival, American news reports headlined the country’s development strategies at the cost of democracy, such as relocating people from fertile regions to arid lands where they do not have access to resources that allow them to practice subsistence farming.

Contrary to these news reports, Alula spoke about the incentives the government has created for small farmers to increase their agribusiness to market size exports. The constant decrease of public expenditures and investment in infrastructure has motivated the government to appeal to foreign investors. The country is embracing the “Democratic Developmentalism Model,” a reconfigured version of the East Asian (Chinese) developmental state model, for its future. By focusing on Agricultural Development Led Industrialization (ADLI) and transforming the agricultural industry to produce more and develop the agricultural markets for Ethiopia, younger people must be included.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is an example of one of the many investments the country is making for itself. Although there are negative environmental consequences associated with dam building, without power investment cannot occur. By ensuring the country has a stable source of power, there will be an increase of investments in Ethiopia.

 

SOCIAL RESERVATION FEELS LIKE HOME

Roaming through Addis Ababa during orientation week of the IFP, I was often reminded of my first international development internship in Dhaka, Bangladesh four years ago. I suppose some sights, smells, and sounds are commonplace in developing cities: bamboo scaffolding supporting cement buildings frames; small piles of trash burning along residential roads; roosters from neighboring slums crowing at daybreak. Around the world, urban poverty manifests itself through similar physical traits. While these resemblances are easily recognizable in Addis, my comfort level here reaches far beyond what I felt in Dhaka. Addis air doesn’t scratch my throat with every inhalation. Almost no beggars suffer from disfigurement or maiming. Even public transportation, usually shared minivans, seems safer than shaky rickshaws.

Perhaps the most appreciated improvement in daily life, especially for a Westerner living in the upscale neighborhood of a poor city, comes from treatment by the locals. Bangladeshis were unabashedly curious about foreigners. They stared intently and sometimes snapped cellphone pictures as we crossed paths. Ethiopians welcome newcomers with friendly greetings, but generally focus their eyes ahead towards their destination. For a native New Yorker who walks fast and impassively, the social reservation feels like home.

Over the next two months I will continue to be awestruck by sandal-clad construction workers, barely averted traffic collisions, and goats herded along city highways but will take solace knowing that I myself shock nobody. Without the worry of disapproval by my new neighbors, all that remains is settling into another routine.