Scraps

In the past week or so I’ve been trying to (re)organize this blog, and in that process I’ve come across a number of scraps, bits and pieces of things I started writing but didn’t finish. It was interesting to look at some of these because they provided some additional perspective on my first year in Ethiopia.

Rather than trying to go back and finish what I started, I decided to just compile and post them as a single entry here.


Expectations

When you’re in our positions you hear a lot about expectations. Expectations can make the difference between success and failure. There are different kinds of expectations, of course. Do I expect to succeed? Do I expect to change anything? Just what do I expect? Transform the Ethiopian educational system?  Improve the teaching of teachers, the English or test scores of students? What about personal transformation? Increased wisdom? Fresh perspective? Weight loss? Resume builder? Refuge from broken/poisoned discourse? Stepping stone to the next thing? Exotic food? Learn a new language? Change habits? Hot weather? Circle of close friends?

OK, I’ve already dipped more than a big toe into the stream of consciousness (again), so why not start wading in?

I didn’t expect to live at 8,000 feet, but I am and I love it. It’s cold, frigid almost, at night and in the morning. And at mid-day it’s blistering hot. If you’re in the sun, that is. Step into the shade and it’s quite pleasant, maybe even a tad cool. If anything I wish I could live even higher up, farther from the masses, if there were such a place. I’d like to live in an even colder and sunnier clime. The highest place I’ve been is Choké, and I was a bit disappointed to see that sheep and cows had pretty well chewed the place up, just like everywhere else. Farms and cattle and erosion were plainly visible at 10,000 feet, just like everywhere else. Is it inescapable? The population density was noticeably on the light side, though, so there was a sense of refuge that I expect from the mountains. I don’t know what I expected in general, but what I miss most from my old life is the ability to get away to places with few people and plenty of nature.

From my vantage point here, it’s almost heartbreaking to think of the incredible, unspoiled nature accessible in the US. There are only hints of it around these parts, but a hint is enough to lift my spirits.

It’s easy enough to write about the struggles… in the western, developed world, as here, it’s easier to write about pain than joy. Depression or boredom are at the fingertips, easily transferred to the keyboard, But joy, enlightenment, or sublime experience … these are slippery concepts, difficult to hold. When I look back on my half year over here now, I can see that, just as in the US, my happiest moments come outdoors, in whatever nature I can find. Not a natural conversationalist, unlike many others, I’m not necessarily fueled by those everyday interactions that give life meaning to so many. Small talk becomes even smaller, almost microscopic, when figuring in the language and culture gaps. Cactus becomes taller. The white wings of the cattle egret, flying over in a small flock at the end of the day, become more translucent …those birds become even more mysterious, even mystical I might say. Natural spring water, cranes, ravens, and fig trees give me hope. Eucalyptus don’t fill me with bitterness, but in their omnipresent utilitarian sameness do conjure up a vague sense of dull dread.

I didn’t come here with any well-defined set of expectations. Like many others, I tried not to. But the human brain is constantly calibrating, predicting, sampling, extrapolating. So all that stuff I read in books and magazines spanning a point from college until just days before leaving, official and anecdotal, and all those stories in blogs and meet & greets definitely made an impression. Every country is so different, so it is indeed strange to build any assumptions on what it will be like to volunteer. Every program is different, as is every placement. Yet I’ll admit I accumulated a host of vague assumptions. I expected physical hardship and cultural and language barriers. I never could have expected the culture I’m living in. It sometimes feels like I’m Ray Charles on Mars, or watching Hal Hartley in Ethiopia (more on that later) … it’s not that the two cultures clash, it’s that they exist on different planes, in different orbits. The ways of doing business and problem-solving don’t align. Often it’s not the language gap, but the communication gap — the way of communicating — that stands out. I’ll try to write about this in a different entry.

I expected, somehow, to be living in a rural place, in a village with little in the way of modern conveniences, teaching in a school where terminology such as “continuous formative assessment” or “action research” would be more foreign than me. I didn’t expect to enter into a highly rigid, bureaucratic, top-down system. But that’s where I am, dealing with plenty of folks who can and do spout such terminology all day long, That rigid, top-down hierarchy permeates almost everything here, and that’s something I could not have predicted or appreciated before arriving.

The manager at the hotel seems to have no clear duties or role other than to walk around with his hands clasped behind his back, doing the requisite meet and greet with favored customers, and badgering the waitresses. On one busy night we had finished our meal and looked to have the dishes cleared; the manager came over, took a couple of plates but only put them on the next table, and then yelled at the obviously very busy waitress to come pick them up. Where I’m from, restaurant managers do have a higher rank, but do typically help with all sorts of duties, including clearing dishes, when crunch time comes.

Perhaps the worst manifestation of this hierarchy is, as alluded to above, the treatment of women. It’s my humble opinion that this country will not advance in any great measure until women are empowered on a broader scale (or, until, as I often suggest, we see a man sitting on that little stool behind the charcoal burner for the bunna ceremony at the big event). … (…)


To Share or Not to Share: That is the Question!

There wasn’t much of a response on the recent reader poll here. That’s not surprising. People are busy with work of course, and the World Series is going on. It’s not as though Americans have become overly passive, complacent, or incurious. Is it?

Facebook, a “social networking” site, reveals some interesting social behaviors, if online behaviors count as social ones (this may be the central question). It would seem that social interaction is a two-way street, but this may not be true online. Anecdotal data and informal observations show that many sign up, add friends, and proceed to show almost no activity on the site, For many, adding friends seems to be their only activity. Others seemingly have no activity at all, suggesting they simply are not visiting the site. Yet one-on-one conversations and other clues often reveal that they have indeed been there, but only as readers. These facebook voyeurs look but don’t touch, see but don’t interact. Some even lament the behavior of those other individuals who might be considered serial posters, who broadcast their many moods and feelings, emotional ups and downs, and small daily goings on for all to read. in their defense, someone has to generate the content!

It doesn’t’ take much energy, while reading, to make a quick comment on a post, a photo, or a shared link, yet for some this is beyond the pale. It may be fear that keeps them from interacting: someone, somewhere may divine their true feelings or opinions from such an action, and judge them as a result, fairly or unfairly. Better to keep opinions, thoughts, and communication carefully compartmentalized. Or it could be that they have no thoughts or opinions on that (or any other) matter.

Or this famous American demure may be a mask for a lack of intellectual curiosity. One thing facebook has done to help these timid/lazy/incurious folks is to introduce a little feature called the “like” button. WIth this feature, but a small spasm of the index finger sends a miniature feedback loop to the poster, letting her or him know that someone out there read what they shared and found it worthwhile on some level. It’s a very short limb to climb out on … (…)


Stop That Ge’ez, I Wanna Get Off

(The Stream of Consciousness Flows through a series of bad days)

In the past I always found that singing from the nearby church soothing. I’ve written before about its meditative quality. I don’t know if it’s the new, harsher, more tortured singing style, or the perceived increase in amplification, or the various and sundry personal worries and issues that has me stressed, or a combination of these things, but that singing kept me awake last night and brought an unusual anxiety into the new day.

I’ve been told those are Ge’ez words being sung, the ancient precursor language to Amharic, but to my ear it’s wordless lament, something comparable, by a stretch, to what Milton Nasciemento got in trouble for singing under the military dictatorship in Brazil decades ago. What I call singing, I’ve been told, is actually praying, and is normally broadcast on weekends, going from Saturday night, all night long, well into Sunday morning, but in this case it came in the middle of the week due to a cultural/religious holiday/world aids day that no one can adequately explain to me. There are streamers and banners, grass in the curbsides of the streets, and holiday lights strung up. It’s all very festive and ought to be a lot of fun, so I guess it must be those personal worries that kept me up. Until now I’d been riding the ups and downs, the highs and lows that come with being a volunteer in a strange land, part of a new program with new rules and new expectations, riding the very highs and lows that contribute to the variety that is the spice of daily living. But something clicked after coming back from a fun, long weekend in Addis.

There’s the everlasting housing issue and a few others that I can’t write about here … (…)


Finally, here are a few pictures I took in the Choké Mountains in December of 2011.

 

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