Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Seventh and Eighth Addis Heralds

The Addis Herald
I can't admit I missed a month, so this is the "May and a Half" 2008 Edition

In this issue:
Social Commentary, T-Shirt Style
Endocrine Glands R Us
Don King's Fun With Electricity
Call Me Sisyphus

Hey guys. :-) Happy extended May from one in denial. People have been asking if I'm still alive, so it's time to send a letter.

I'm still working on fun safari stories from South Africa, etc. Things here have been crazy. I'll send them out eventually—because if I ever stop writing, I'll get pale, emaciated, bug-eyed, and start to mumble to myself a lot.


Thumper (yeah, the rabbit) said it best, I think. He looked at his feet and sheepishly announced: "If you can't say nothin' good, don't say nothin' at all." This is where I've lived for the past two or three months: wanting to explode into shards of criticism and frustration because of this culture, but knowing that doing so will just impale others. (God bless my poor, dear mother who too frequently shoulders what I don't unleash on friends.)

Sometimes people think overseas life is glamorous—and I will admit that it can be—but here's the reality that counters any glitz: The grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence, and both lawns get fertilized. Ethiopia, with 5 billion donkeys and 10 trillion goats, has a whole lot more fertilizer.

Things here have been really hard lately.

A drought has hindered hydroelectricity generated by the (only) dam near Lake Tana. (At least, this is what the government says. Friends and I who have seen the dam and lake know they're both full.) Addis has endured rolling power outages for the past three months; each neighborhood is without power and water for at least three days per week (though most shacks don't have these things on a good day). There's also a drinking water shortage, so when I can get it, I use the tap water that Microbiologist Dude once told me to avoid entirely (filters and a UV light help a lot). Rainy season just started, though, so maybe electricity will be restored—if it's not an oppressive governmental control issue (which it probably is, and you would be amazed). But besides the power outages, everyone suffers because of skyrocketing food and commodities prices. It seems like even more beggars ask me for money now.

The drought has especially hurt crops in eastern and southwestern parts of the country. People in these areas are actually beginning to starve, and last week the BBC stated that an estimated six million children will die in this famine. You're not likely to know much about this, since the government is trying to keep it quiet to save face. It's far, far worse than the Chinese earthquake and Burma's cyclone combined. This week's issue of The Economist contains an article that SHREDS the Ethiopian government. And rightly so.

We in the city are far removed from the starvation, and it feels unreal to me yet. The scariest thing for us in town has been terrorism. There have been four officially reported bombings during the past two and a half months—though five or six others remain unofficial. Two were at gas stations and two were on public transportation, which almost all of us have to take. An American was killed a few weeks ago, and about twenty Ethiopians have been injured or killed. No one has claimed responsibility, and locals are blaming the government. This is a malevolent dictatorship—despite my business visa reading "Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia"—so I put nothing past it. It could be false-flag bombing to divert the increasing strain over domestic issues. If the violence can be blamed unofficially on Eritrea, one of this country's archenemies, the government might deflect public unrest and avoid demonstrations or even a coup. Things aren't nearly this bad yet, but tension has been building despite Ethiopians' typically passive nature.

The U.S. embassy here says we have a greater chance of getting hurt in a car accident than of being harmed by terrorists. I'd agree. But just the fact it's happening is alarming.

If you think America has problems right now, come on down, honey. A trip to see how most of the rest of the world lives may do you good.

About half of my foreign friends and I are going home soon, so we're also weathering the classic end-of-stint stress and transition. I know it's bad when unflappable Attorney Guy calls me and says, "Meredith, I just need to gripe. Can you listen?" (Except he always uses more colorful words than "gripe.") I said, "Are you kidding?! Talk! I live to fix things, and that's why I'm dying here."

But despite our frustration, we plug on. We try to help where and when we can. We still learn more about God, each other and ourselves. We still enjoy friendships and aspects of life here. But I'm counting down the time till I get outta Dodge—at this writing, it's six weeks before I go to Europe and eight weeks before I go back to Oregon. Then back to Colorado in September. (And to think I once thought I couldn't make it 30 days in Africa.)

THANK YOU to those who have prayed for me. I would not have made it this long if it weren't for you! Truly. You are appreciated!

Social Commentary, T-Shirt Style
[Note: This is a potentially offensive section. Be forewarned.]

The other night, Attorney Guy, another friend and I were looking for a taxi when an Ethiopian on the street started screaming, "F— you, ferenj! I will kill you! I will kill you! Get out of my country! I will f—ing kill you!" He followed us for several blocks, but Attorney Guy is six feet tall and good protection.

This type of aggression is fairly common. After enduring it for 10 months, I've finally had it. I want to wear T-shirts emblazoned with snide messages written in Amharic (I realize my attitude is bad). Only 35 to 40 percent of Ethiopians are literate, but it would do my heart good to know that a few of these cretinous, insufferable men know my thoughts.

Before you judge me for my attitude, try living here as a single woman. When I walk on the street (which is every single day), about 60 percent of the time some idiot is shouting something hurtful at me. Forgiveness and turning the other cheek are among the lessons I'm still learning.

Here is what I would tell these men. May this help you understand an aspect of life in Addis:

*My name is not "Hey You!," "Fat Whore!" or "Ferenj!"
[With the latter, they're trying to say "French" or "Frenchy" The French settled in Addis during WWI and were among the first foreigners to do so. Therefore, all foreigners are referred to as "Ferenj" or "Ferenji." This is slowly changing since China has been taking over the country. A few months ago, a little Ethiopian girl pointed at me and shouted, "Chinese!" I just stared at her.]
*No, I don't want to have sex with you. The gestures won't convince me.
[Most of them think white women are ugly. It's all mocking.]
*Why, yes, I am married and he's coming to beat the crap out of you.
*Who says your ridiculous country hasn't been conquered? Italy, 1935–41, you arrogant little goat!
*Shut up before you even start to speak to me.
*I am not an ATM or your visa outta here.
*No, I don't need your help to carry my groceries so you can demand money later.
*What are you thinking??! (Oh. You can't.)
* I can take you out, moron, so don't you dare touch me.

A Kiwi friend in town invented a game to ameliorate the stress. She gives men points based on how offensive they are. She's been known to look straight at them, laugh and say, "Only three out of 10? Where are the four-letter words and groping? You can do better." They have no idea what she's saying, but it helps her cope.

It's all about coping. Lately I'm not doing it very well.

My hairdresser is a hip and fascinating 60-year-old French businesswoman/socialite who has lived in Addis for 40 years. She and her aristocratic Ethiopian husband have survived the Dergue, the famines, you name it and then some. She's a wealth of information and advice. Last month I was all ears as she snipped around them.

I told her that I'd seemed to run into extreme arrogance among my students, and asked if she thought my perception was accurate. She snorted, pointed the scissors into the mirror and said, "Mais bien sur! Most definitely! It is oven behavior, and it is why this country has so many problems." When I looked confused, she told me this Ethiopian folktale:

When God made man, His first attempt at firing the clay in the oven came out pale and inferior. These are the white people. His second attempt came out overcooked, too dark and useless. These are the black people. The third attempt came out chocolate-colored and perfect. These perfect people are the Ethiopians. (And they take much pride, too, from being mentioned in the Bible several times.)

She says many of them actually believe this. It would explain a lot. They have a long history of being stiff-necked and not listening to anyone, be it to NGO's, foreign governments, teachers or anyone else who comes in to try to help them. And she's far from being the only expatriate to comment on this—many who have lived here long-term agree. She went so far as to say, "Let your students be as ignorant as they are choosing to be." (Well, I don't have much of a choice.)

When you live in Crazyville, you tend to think everyone around you is normal and you're the one who's nuts. Her perspective always makes me feel less nuts. I'm not the only one who has a hard time in this country.

Endocrine Glands R Us
Microbiologist Dude and I had lunch and talked for several hours recently, ending our long and very helpful hiatus. It's been impossible not to bump into him because our worlds are so entangled—so we finally had to face each other again. It was actually nice to be with him, and he thought the same. Even when he spoke with the emotional agility of a dump truck (Shakespeare he is not), I could overlook it because I've gotten perspective. It's all about perspective.

Turns out we've each learned something about God, the opposite sex and ourselves—he more than I. He's still idealistic, though; he thinks our friendship will last for years. (Maybe it will in some form, but experience tells me it will gradually become a yearly Christmas card.)

I cracked a testosterone joke when he happened to mention his Muppets' song collection (like you, I cringe at this). He was witty enough to sidestep it, though, so my barb landed, impotent and passive, somewhere near his salad. After lunch I went home and listened to Zeppelin because I have a) better taste in music, and b) more testosterone.

Ladies, beware of metrosexual males. They don't get boundaries, women or why their behavior is confusing. But they do say sweet things at times. When I told Micro Dude I was looking forward to seeing friends who love me in the States, he said, "Oh. Right. As opposed to the friends here who don't love you."

But still. Does anybody know a Marine? An Army man? I'm not picky. Though if he's been to grad school to spend an inordinate amount of time with germs, I'll pass unless I get TB.

Don King's Fun With Electricity
A group of friends and I went out for Ethiopian food and an ethnic dance show last night. Each region/tribe of Ethiopia has at least one specific dance and musical style. The dancers performed all of them for two and a half hours, and many dances were like the most intense aerobic workout you've ever had times 70. At first, though, several of the routines (mainly from Muslim areas) were very reserved and I thought, We could leave now. Things picked up with the southern regions. They GET DOWN, baby. Whew. It was fun. You can't help but move and clap with some of them.

We witnessed the birthplace of hip-hop. The dancers were so good, and some of the dances so "familiar" that they could have been backup for any band nowadays. And when the male dancers came to our table and flirted with us, we even danced with them.

The costumes, however, left something to be desired. The headdresses, for example, looked like Don King if he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. Or maybe Eartha Kitt on an even worse hair day. And one of the dancers did something that is so amazing it's difficult to explain. She swung her head back and forth so fast that her hair flew around and we thought her skull might actually snap off. This was the finale because she was so disoriented afterwards that she had to take a second to regain her senses. I call it the Chiropractic Dance--there is no way she doesn't need to be realigned. You can't even fathom this unless you see it. Maybe it's on You Tube. Look under Ethiopian, Dance, and Moves that Could Kill the Untrained.

Call Me Sisyphus
I came to Ethiopia to teach, but that's not really why I'm here. There's no teaching to be done when a ridiculous school lies to you and undermines most of what you attempt. Nope. God brought me here to teach me. Among the many lessons are endurance and trust in the fact that HE is sovereign and sufficient. My career (if one could call what I'm currently doing a career) doesn't define me—He does. My success or failure (oh, tons of my failure here, baby) cannot make Him love me any more or any less. And HE, as I've said before, is my life. I thought I'd learned all this in China, but apparently Ethiopia is a Ph.D. course. (Soon I'll be invincible.)

For me, being in the classroom feels like pushing a boulder uphill and being smashed as it rolls back down—again and again. It doesn't matter if I knock myself out planning a detailed level-appropriate lesson plan, the two or three students who can understand still don't care or pay attention. Half don't even bother to bring their books. And when students aren't talking and ignoring me (or worse, mocking me to my face), they ask me impossible questions. One girl was baffled when I told her that "I will to drink my truck" is not a clear sentence (I am not making this up). And when I said, "Do you understand?" to another girl, the young man next to her had to tell her to say no—she couldn't even understand enough to say it by herself. Only a bilingual Amharic speaker could truly help these guys. I'm just doing a very poor job of baby-sitting.

Students think I'm the Wicked Witch of the West because I actually enforce rules (gasp!). You know, for silly things. Like following instructions that I know 80 percent of them understand but don't have the critical thinking skills to heed. Like being on time and not sauntering in 90 minutes late with a lame excuse. Being quiet and seated in rows. Writing legibly and paying attention to spelling and grammar. When they do not follow the rules, there is a consequence (gasp!). But my enforcing the consequences makes me the antichrist.

I've become the teacher we all hated growing up. You know. The one with a surly mouth, beady eyes, frumpy clothes and a chip on her shoulder that you just knew was the reason she was still single at age 110. The one you couldn't wait to exasperate by continuing to talk when she shhhed you. This teacher usually looked tired, defeated and grouchy, and she merited yearbook entries such as, "Glad we survived Ol' Saggy Butt" (or insert the derisive name of your choice). My students don't write about me (because most of them can't), but they convey their discontent effectively in other ways. I am equally dissatisfied with them.

There's a word for this: BURNOUT. My general rule is when the schoolbag starts to fray, it's time to go home. You're unraveling, too. (My bag is hanging by a thread.)

Twenty-one years ago I started traveling internationally with the attitude that there is no better or worse, no good or bad, just different. But during the past five years, I've become a cultural imperialist. There IS right and wrong, better and worse, good and bad. Though there's no such thing as a truly humane culture (we're all seriously messed up), some cultures ARE more organized and better than others. Before you disagree or find me narrow-minded, do hard time in Africa. I dare you. Watch how parts of this continent treat foreigners and their own. You would be amazed. And you would deeply, deeply appreciate how much you've got, even if it's imperfect and you don't think it's enough.

Anyway. This is life here in a nutshell. I'm looking forward to being in a place that makes more sense to me—but even then there will be a significant adjustment as I face reentry shock. Still, the future looks brighter. :-)

Let me know how you are if you have a chance. I enjoy getting updates. And I'll see you soon enough. I'm hoping to grow roots at my (much appreciated) new desk—the wild, wild world has been great, but domesticity has its benefits, too. For those of you who want to travel long-term, go for it. You will be a significantly different person when you come back, and this is usually a good thing. It's never easy, though.


The Addis Herald June Editionette

So last week as I was reading my Bible a few verses bit me (Luke 6:27–32 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16 among others). As has been my custom when convicted in Addis Ababa, I said—out loud to myself, which is one of many reasons my guards think I'm bats—"Yep. I'm pretty much an idiot."

And it didn't help (?) that that morning I'd gotten an e-mail from my friend Kim, who sent this eerily timed quotation from her quote-a-day calendar:

"Love one another in spite of your differences, in spite of your faults. Love one another, and make the best of one another, as He loved us, who forgot, forgave, put out of sight what was bad" —Arthur P. Stanley (1815-1881).

I have much to learn and a LOT of frustration to release. As you, I'm still a work-in-progress with jagged edges. (How lucky for me that Ethiopia is fantastic sandpaper.)

This country—much of the continent, actually—is out of control and just getting worse despite the BILLIONS of dollars in aid that the world sends. (Why? Because you can't help corrupt governments and/or arrogant people who refuse to change.) But instead of my anger, Ethiopia needs my prayer. (Though even Jesus would be enraged by some of this stuff!)

Anyway, things are looking up here—and I was never as distraught as some of you thought based on the May and Half edition. Here are good developments since I last wrote:

1. There are only two sane people at XXX, but thank God both of them are officemates. When the academic dean (sane person and officemate #1) told me that I shouldn't feel guilty for having problems with students, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (If given a modicum of opportunity, I will feel guilty for global warming and Ebola outbreaks.)

He went on to say that most teachers at XXX don't do their job. The fact that I have been by enforcing rules, planning lessons and expecting students to work sets me apart in students' minds—but not for the better. He said that many students nowadays are "very scary, undisciplined, ignorant and arrogant." (In other words, he echoed every one of my adjectives for them.) He also said that since corporal punishment has been taken out of the Ethiopian school system, student quality has gradually deteriorated. (Hmmmmmmm.) His generation (he's my age) is much better educated and more respectful.

He had no solutions, but just talking with him made me feel better.

2. My phone was stolen 10 days ago, which was a huge ordeal at first because the government controls telecommunications (and everything else) and is not issuing new SIM cards. But a South African friend who doubles as guardian angel loaned me one of his phones (with card) for as long as I need it. WHEW. God provides.

3. My friend Alice (of traveling fame) asked me to teach a master's-level writing workshop at XXX. Her students are MUCH higher level than my yahoos (don't mean to sound cruel, but a spade is a spade), and I'm really looking forward to teaching people who actually want to learn.

4. I'm finalizing Europe details and looking forward to seeing friends in England and Holland. :-) I'll also spend a day in Germany and might try to hit France, too, if I can swing it. Half of this is courtesy of the State Department, since my return flight is through Frankfurt.

5. God continues to teach and hone. This is always good, even if I squirm a lot.

Anyway, happy June. I can admit now that it's not May. I hope you're well!



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