Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Second Addis Herald (see disclaimer on the first!)


In this Issue:
The Great Ethiopian Weight-Loss Plan
Red Tape as an Art Form
"My Cat the Uncle Is Died."
These Are the People in My Neighborhood
Hardcore Lessons in Contentment
A Little Extra For Dedicated Readers (affectionately known as Newsletter Junkies)

Hello all. Greetings from Addis. (Yup. I'm still here! If you bet against that, you're out a few bucks—as you should be.)

While many of you are bundling up for miserable weather, I am comfortable in an African paradise. (Well, paradise has much less pollution, but at least this place is always sunny after rainy season.) I wear light shirts, skirts, and capris every day. After shivering through winters that froze my nostrils together in China and Colorado, this is fabulous! Still, it's strange to live in eternal springtime. Even in November, I am surrounded by hibiscus blossoms and flowering trees. The only thing that reminded me it's almost Thanksgiving was an invitation to dinner at a friend's house. Otherwise, I have completely lost track of time. It's May to me. Christmas, if I remember to celebrate it, will feel bizarre with sunscreen.

I have learned a lot since I last wrote. In some ways, I'm having an easier time. I've learned how to navigate this "massive and incoherent" city. I've worked to improve my home. I've learned how to speak a few more words of Amharic. I have made new friends and had a lot more fun than I did during my first few days here. And I continue to learn at least some of what God seems to be trying to teach me. (But the latter is a trial-and-error process.)

Now for a few snapshots of life in my world … (maybe real pictures later) …

The Great Ethiopian Weight-Loss Plan
Starving Ethiopians are rare nowadays. But in starvation's place is a little-known weight-loss wonder called EXTREME MOVEMENT (who knew?). Most days I walk between 2 to four miles to go to campus, meet friends, catch public transportation, and go to the grocery store. Besides this, I go to a gym for stress management via treadmill (only those with a death wish run outside). Judging from my now tentlike clothing, I have lost another 15 pounds in the last six weeks or so. (2009 note: Yeah, this lasted until I came back to the States. Ugh.)

Ethiopian colleagues, however, comment on fat I am (even though I am NOT). The men tell me to exercise, though I easily run up four flights of stairs that leave them winded. If these guys knew how close they are to death when they criticize me, they would back off. But the average Ethiopian woman is size 2 or 4, and three inches shorter than I am. To these men, I am a walrus at size 10. (And since their first weight remark, I no longer carry sharp objects to faculty meetings.)

Red Tape as an Art Form
I came here thinking I could help students and work with Ethiopians to improve education. But I now understand that accomplishing anything at xxxx, and in Ethiopia as a whole, is nigh near impossible. Just ask any expatriate in town, regardless of their profession. Some of us want to form a foreigner's support group with witty T-shirts and martinis on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Bureaucracy is the rule in this country. If you don't have the proper forms and signatures in triplicate, you are not allowed to do even simple things such as pay your electric bill or buy a mobile phone (my Canadian friend Alice is sitting phoneless in her pitch-black living room as I type). Getting these forms and signatures is a wild-goose chase, even for Ethiopians. Thankfully, the U.S. embassy cuts through a lot of this red tape for me—and sometimes illegally, though I don't even mind that at this point. But the embassy cannot protect me from xxxx's procedures. It doesn't matter, for example, what question I ask school officials; the doublespeak pattern I get is the same. Allow me to illustrate using a simple question. Imagine the dazzling complexity if I ask a more difficult question. You will think I'm kidding, but I'm not.

(Ato means "Mr." and Tekalign [sounds like "TEKahleen"] is head of the Language Department):

Meredith: Ato Tekalign, where can I make photocopies?
Takalign: I understand what you are asking and how you feel.
M: Really? That's amazing. I'm not even sure how I feel today. About the copies …
T: The administration can help you discover this information.
M: But the office is closed for two weeks. So, do you think you could tell me?
T: There are many copies made every day.
M: Well, that's true, but I'm not the one making them. So, where can I make them?
T: We have standard procedures for assessing this information.
M: Great. So what would those procedures be?
T: We are happy to make the copies for you.
M: That's very kind, but it's been five days and no one has yet. I need copies by tomorrow.
T: The administration understands how you feel. We agree.
M: (Quizzical look.) You agree with what, exactly? (Personal thought: You agree with the fact I want to choke you until your eyes pop out?)
T: We agree with your argument.
M: (Mental backtracking: Argument? Did I have an argument??) And what argument is that?
T: That it is very important to know where to make photocopies.
M: Yes. It is. And for some reason, I still don't. (My temple is twitching now.)
T: You will.
M: Do you think it is possible to tell me now?
T: The administration is happy to help you. You will need three signatures of approval for each copy. Surely, you understand our procedures.

Yeah. I understand their procedures. Launching the space shuttle is less complicated than doing anything in Ethiopia.

Try working with this mentality for several months. There is rarely a clear yes, no, or even maybe in their world. Many times, there is no answer at all, and important questions are left hanging, even if they are as simple as my asking where a meeting is to be held. (If I develop a personality disorder in Africa, please be patient with me when I come home.)

On a less maddening note, I have bypassed much of the nonsense by ignoring officials and doing my own thing in (as yet) undetectable ways. This is necessary if I want to actually work. And if I get in trouble at some point, I think I can take the heat. Sanity is worth the risk. Besides, I'm distantly related to Harry Truman, so I think I'll be OK--the whole "get out of the kitchen" thing, you know. It must run in my family. :-)

"My Cat the Uncle Is Died."
Last month an otherwise prim American missionary summed it up nicely, and surprisingly, when he said, "This country's educational system is so [expletive] up that we can't teach anything." After watching the system at "work," I see his point.

One of my 20-year-old Sophomore Writing students wrote the above heading as a topic sentence. (Though I'm still uncertain what it means, she did not mean that her uncle's cat is dead.) She wrote this pseudo-sentence even after the class and I had spent two weeks working on how to write basic topic sentences. There are about six ability levels in her class of 69 (yes, 69, though they tell me it will be split soon). Many students do no homework at all because they cannot understand enough English to know what's happening during class. Only an Amharic-speaking teacher could really help these students. I often feel as if I'm putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

Students learn in Amharic, their official language, until eighth grade (age 14). By law, teachers then abruptly switch the language of instruction to English, so for the rest of the students' education, classes are in English, whether or not they can understand it. Besides this, many Ethiopian teachers do not speak English well themselves, and the instructional materials I am required to teach with—though I disregard them and use my own—are poorly designed and riddled with grammatical errors.

Maybe I'm missing crucial inside information, but people at school seem to accept chaos as a way of life. The administration, for example, has changed my class schedule, student rosters, and room assignments five times without telling me. I have shown up in the wrong place at the wrong time more often than not. Students and I are baffled each week because we don't know where to have class. But this, apparently, is considered normal. Students and teachers don't complain or protest because they don't seem to think it will change anything. They have not lived with the sense of hope that many Westerners take for granted.

As for teaching itself, the most analogous description I can give is this: herding cats. In a perfect world, I would be able to utilize all the techniques I learned in graduate school. This world, however, is a mess. Many students are good-natured, and we often have fun, but they know only disorder. It doesn't matter how clear and simple my instructions are, many do not know how to follow directions. Ethiopian teachers do not enforce a standard of quality or organization, and they cannot fail even the poorest student. As a result, students are used to turning in scraps of paper with illegible scribbles as homework. They expect me to accept this. When I refuse, they are shocked. I'm at a loss to know how to grade assignments, because so far they haven't turned in anything coherent. Colleagues just laugh knowingly when I share these things.

After some extreme irritation and culture shock during the past two weeks, I'm once again rolling with the punches, for the most part. I try to brush off work aggravation and focus on more uplifting things like the fact my house's cockroach population is dwindling, or the fact a friend and I had fun cooking for a dinner party last week. I also relish the fact Thanksgiving is coming.

Side note: Last Thanksgiving I was in England, and for several years before that, I was in China. I'm not sure what Thanksgiving in Africa will be like, but I'll let you know. Two friends are vegetarians, so Tofurky with turnip puree might actually be in my future. (But I hope not.)

These Are the People in My Neighborhood
Despite the chaos (or maybe because of it), Ethiopia attracts driven, extremely intelligent Westerners. A group of expatriate friends and I had lunch earlier this week, and of the eight other folks at the table, alma maters were Yale, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Oxford, Cambridge, and Stanford. After they realize I'm not kidding and I actually did attend Liberty University, they tease me. They can't imagine me with Falwell. Frankly, I still can't either.

Many in this group work in public health, though one of the men is an attorney and one of the women is a British embassy official. I am the only teacher in the bunch, which is a shame because I can't talk shop with anyone. Instead of discussing school-related issues, as I did with expats in China, I hear a lot about parasites, tuberculosis, HIV drugs, and stool samples. While these topics are lovely over tortellini and wine, I do enjoy our other conversations more. I actually like to read The Lancet, though, so I try to join discussions about things like mitochondrial DNA research (operative word: try). And if it's not research, it's anagrams or jokes, or banter and some other form of wit. They are nothing if not entertaining. (And they are proof that hopeless high-school nerds win in life as adults.)

But regardless of the number of foreigners here, and although I hang out with many of them, I'm still quite lonely at times. Life abroad can feel isolated because friendships are different in a revolving-door world. Just as you are getting to know someone better or even well, one of you goes home. Three in my crowd have left already. I feel a bit fragmented, and I wonder why God seems to deny some people deep friendships while they are overseas—especially since He designed us to need meaningful companionship. I'm not maudlin about this, though. It's just part of my world right now. Many of you have asked to know the nitty-gritty of life here, and loneliness is certainly part of it.

My daily walk to campus includes passing through a 200-yard-long stretch of beggars lined up on the street. Most have grotesque disabilities—no limbs or misshapen limbs, discharges, hideous burns, diseased eyes that have wasted away, leprosy, paralysis. The experience makes me appreciate what Jesus must have seen and healed. Many beggars sit or lie on dusty mats on the sidewalk, crying out in Amharic for money. Last week I saw a man who shook violently because of what I assume was advanced Parkinson's disease. His companions held him up as he groaned to me for help. I dug in my bag for change and tried not to cry. All I could think was, "What if this were my father? There but for the grace of God …"

If you live here, you see human suffering every day. I frequently step over men who lie in the street because they have nowhere else to sleep. Filthy children follow me and grab at my shirt, yelling. Able-bodied but unemployed men and women sometimes block my path and shout in English, "Give me money!" I give to a few beggars who are less brazen, but not every day and not very much. If I were to give too lavishly or too often, it would make me a target for attack. I've already been grabbed and shaken by a desperate man as it is. Now I try to walk the gauntlet without seeing anyone.

I realize this sounds heartless, but you learn quickly that little can ease the suffering. I struggle daily with Jesus's words "Give to all who ask," and "Sell all you have ..." I realize that the latter was spoken to a man whose heart was wrapped up in his money, but I still don't know exactly what it means for me. I have no satisfying answers, though I'm asking Him to show me how I should respond to the misery. I'm not sure I'll ever understand. It is so overwhelming it can leave foreigners speechless.

Hardcore Lessons in Contentment
If you have prayed for me in the last month or so, thank you. I've felt it even through the frustrations. I hope to grow a little wiser because of the struggles and the joys—and there are joys in all of this, too. They are little things like making soup while having a great conversation with an expat friend, or going to lunch with a student. The little joys are frequent enough to keep me sane (if I was sane to begin with) :-).

My good buddy C.S. Lewis once wrote, "Faith … is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." Ha. Some days my moods swing hourly. Life here is more intense than life at home. But through the difficulties, God is teaching me hardcore lessons in contentment. At least three times a day I stop and speak Truth to myself: 1. God is good. 2. God is in control. 3. God has my best at heart, even if situations and feelings seem to say otherwise.

I am realizing that most of the things we think we need in life are not what we really need at all. I am learning how to be content even when my most legitimate desires go unmet (keyword: learning … I'm not there yet). I am also learning how to trust God when He is silent. It's all good stuff to learn.

I hope you're well wherever you are. I hope you're learning, too. And if you aren't learning, then, hey. Come on over to the other side of the planet. My door is always open. I have a newly debugged house, an extremely comfortable couch, extra blankets, and enough American goodies to keep you well fed if you don't want to try injera. All you need are a ticket, a visa, some shots, and a passport. Easy peasy.

Till next month,


A Little Extra For Dedicated Readers (affectionately known as Newsletter Junkies)
(This section is neither here nor there in an already too-long newsletter. Read at your own risk.)

As I have watched foreigners who live in Addis, and in other exotic locations, I've noticed definite categories of people over the years. For your edification, and because I still feel like typing, I will try to capture the essences of various world travelers …

1. Relatively Normal People Who Happen to Live Abroad—Can be any age. Really, the only differences between you and this group are that they have a more acute need for adventure, a whole lotta vaccinations, more bureaucratic headaches and frequent flyer miles, and a passport as thick as a small-town phone book. I like to know them. I need to know them. And after all the absurdity at school, I hope to remain one of them.

2. International Burnouts—Usually between 45 and 65 years old. These people have lived overseas for so long they don't have an address in their native country. Their wardrobe is usually an odd fusion of local attire and psychedelic 1960's-type garb—if Birkenstock makes garments, these folks own all of them in tie-dyed hemp. They have no remaining concept of the North American "personal bubble," so they stand alarmingly close to other expats, who try to back away. When burnouts do return to the West, they have never seen and cannot operate simple things like ice machines in fast-food restaurants (one expat I knew in China said she had cubes falling around her ankles). They are sadly are out of touch with their own culture, but on a happier note, they have no idea who Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are. That alone makes me consider this lifestyle.

3. Single Women—Usually 25 to 60 years old (but in my book, you're not truly single until you're 30). Often feisty and capable. Typically well-educated and well-traveled. But those between 32 and 42 usually grieve their withering childbearing years in Ethiopia's vast dating wasteland. Many older single women have become bitter and snappish over the years (cf. Angry Missionary Matriarchs). I pray I don't end up like those chicks.

4. Single Men—More data has been collected on Big Foot than on single men living overseas. Only three specimens live in Addis (I hang out with them all). Many single women here speak of them frequently and wistfully, though these guys are oblivious (we typically want to hit them over the head with sticks). I'm not certain why there are so few single men here, but maybe it's because single women are tougher in general …

5. Angry Missionary Matriarchs—Usually between 50 and 70 years old. Typically have impressive facial hair despite being female. Short on grace, but long on correctness (cf. Pharisees). Their wardrobe includes sack-like polyester dresses and frilly socks with sandals, because, apparently, style is sinful. Just as bad is their sour attitude toward younger people with differing opinions (including 49-year-olds). Do not question these women unless you have the strength to hear a diatribe against keeping a church library book for an extra night. Their children have been born in the backs of Land Rovers in Indonesia, Sudan, and/or Papua New Guinea. Said children were home-schooled and have graduated from Oxford or Harvard in order to save mankind through various types of genetic research, which you will hear of ad nauseum. A high horse is required to be part of this club. I wonder if the air is better up there.

6. Married Missionary Men—Significantly more numerous than single men. They regularly complain about driving in psychotic traffic, but will race across town if a good football game is televised at the pub on Churchill Road (Premier League soccer included). If married to an Angry Missionary Matriarch, they ignore all other women (lest they seem lustful) and are humorless. If married to a normal woman, however, a married man is quick to help a single women in trouble. I'm a big fan of these guys when they give me a ride home at night or protect me from hordes of people on the street.

7. Children and Mothers—Very rare in my world. The only kids I ever see are six and under, so their mom is busy. Conversations with her typically go like this: "Meredith, it's a fabulous book and we should discuss … WILLEM, stop hitting your sister … it next week … CHARLOTTE! Take the doll out of your brother's mouth … Excuse me, let me wipe this up [fiercely mopping juice] … Anyway, let's get together next week … PARKER, it is you, me, and the Spanking Stick, mister … So what were we talking about?"

This family is wonderful, but an afternoon with them is effective birth control for those on the fence about having children. (Which would include me.)

8. Militant Cultural Imperialists—Any age, though usually new to international travel. Aggressive. Arrogant. They are angry most of the time because the natives aren't changing in drastic ways within six weeks of their arrival. They complain bitterly about the way things "should" be and how natives "should" behave. I usually want to bang this type over the head with my book bag. (But after teaching for several weeks, I share some of their frustration.)

9. Psycho Adventurers—Typically 25 to 40. Were born with bungee cords in their abdomens. Catchphrase: "Kilimanjaro is cake next to K2." Always pink from sunburn. Their paraphernalia includes sporty sunglasses, a NorthFace backpack, a can of Red Bull, and a beat-up Land Cruiser. Usually South African or Australian for some reason. They are barking mad and can be found at the bar down the street once their gear is loaded (where they invariably get loaded themselves).

Such is life in Addis this month. I will "see" you next month if not before. :-) Be well!

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