Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Liane and her friend Alana (along with as many as two million others) were at the Irreecha festival in Bishoftu where dozens had been killed. She was still visibly shaken by what she saw, which she would not describe. Yet she was delaying her departure from Ethiopia. “I don’t want to be home for Halloween with all the revelry,” she said. The contrast would have been too jarring.
Alana went so far as to describe the government’s policy toward the Hamar people of Ethiopia as “acts of genocide.” Reportedly, the government had been forcibly removing the Hamar people, a small and isolated tribe living in the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia, from their homeland into villages. A clash in 2015 between soldiers and tribesmen allegedly killed dozens.
But her outspokenness was far from universal. Lana, a nurse from Maine, carefully circumvented every political discussion as long as she was in-country. John for his part endlessly quoted vague proverbs. “I like to talk in Ethiopian proverbs,” he explained, “to avoid taking a stance on politics.”
And volunteers also acknowledged that they could necessarily only see a small part of the unrest, and their individual views could not be objective. “When you’ve worked at a site for two years, with the local people,” George explained, “it becomes very hard not to identify with them and take their point of view.”
George and Liane belonged in the cohort of veterans who had been in-country for nearly two years. The difference between them and the fresh crop of volunteers who had arrived merely weeks ago was palpable. Janna, a veteran, recalled a six-week power cut in her village. “Now I hear people complaining about how, oh, their Instagram isn’t working.” She rolled her eyes.
Which is not to say that they have gotten used to doing without the creature comforts of home. When the topic of conversation shifted to food, the mere mention of chicken pot pie made David, another veteran, moan orgasmically. The charge d’affairs at the U.S. Embassy had just hosted a pool party for the group, serving American staples impossible to find in rural Ethiopia such as hot dogs. David recalled seeing someone with three hot dogs on his plate. “Bitch,” he shook his head, “I would legit trip you.”
“Definitely judging people with three hot dogs and five burgers,” Janna nodded.
The charge d’affairs was paying for the hotdogs out of his own pocket, which garnered tremendous affection from the volunteers. “Then again,” David said, “he makes sixty thousand dollars a year.” I pointed out that sixty thousand made a good middle class salary but was hardly what doctors and lawyers and bankers would call making it rain. “Well, sixty thousand sounds like so much money to me,” David replied, “not only here but even Stateside.” The stipend for a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia was in the vicinity of $100 a month.
Many had been teaching English, and yet many after nearly two years spoke with risible mistakes: “drinked,” “promiscuisiosity,” and so on.
Wilbur, 31, an alarmingly skinny vegetarian and redhead, never cursed on principle and had the voice and mannerisms of a high school theater geek. He was on his second tour with the Peace Corps after time spent in Rwanda, where he was assaulted and given early leave. He had a deck of “Jaded Aid — A Card Game to Save Humanitarians.” A few ex-volunteers created the game, he said. Resembling “Apples and Apples,” the game included such uplifting cards as “bombing for freedom” and “puking into the shower while sitting on the toilet.”
In contrast, the newbies still seemed at the beginning of their grand adventure. Anna, a tall blonde fresh out of Tulane, looked more prepared to rush a sorority than to work in a remote corner of Africa.
One thing nearly all the men, regardless of time spent in-country, had in common, was facial hair. No one bothered to shave much after mere weeks. Cell phones kept getting stolen in this country where pickpockets were a fact of life, so that by now most sported crusty old flip phones circa 1998. (John, a bad Catholic, carried a copy of the New Testament in his pocket as a decoy for his wallet.) And because they had been called in with the instruction to pack only necessities, now everyone wore the same shirt every day and washed clothes in the bathroom. In the twin room that George shared with another veteran, James, damp t-shirts hung blue, yellow, and green from window sills.
(To be continued...)
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."