Week 5 of Pre-Service Training Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

Sadly, I was unable to post to my blog on Valentine’s Day because the internet was insufficient in the town where I was having training classes.  I am going to try to post on February 24th in another city at which point I will try to post both articles.  Even more sadly, when I get to my site in a month or so my connectivity issues may be worse than here which means there may be no real point in having a blog but I do enjoy jotting down some thoughts about my experience for those who might be interested.  I have been keeping in touch one of the only ways that works and is semi-affordable – WhatsApp!  It is great to text with friends and hear about what they are doing so if you are my friend reading this and want to communicate please download free WhatsApp and send me a text at my old number which only works for Whats App.  I am having trouble with email and Facebook eats up my data too quickly.  Enough tech stuff!

I am finishing up Week 5 and had a language test today –  oral.  I sounded ridiculous in several parts of the conversation I am sure.  When asked what I was going to do after the mock test, I started talking about my farm in Virginia instead of about returning to my host family and washing my clothes and hair.  While I am not anywhere near where I need and want to be with my Amharic, I’ve come pretty far for such a short time frame.  In my Spanish classes in Chicago I would be at least in the third semester for what I am expected to learn.  Four hours a day does produce progress even if you don’t always feel like it.  Many words and conjugations are jumbled up in my head now but in time I will be speaking more.  It is hard to find the time or a good place to study in the evening, and after a long day of classes and practicum in the field, I am much more likely to sleep than study when I get to my bed which is the only somewhat quiet place to study.  Having girls, ages 5 and 1, around can make it hard to focus but they are fun to have around and can usually talk me into watching some Disney film or Wonder Woman movie for part of the evening. 

Something my fellow trainees and I have noticed is that our host families do not have mirrors in their homes the way Americans have large mirrors at least in the bathrooms if not throughout their homes.  In my home, there is a small hand mirror hanging on the wall by the door but you can barely see your whole face in it.  I brought a small mirror with me but it is very strange to live life without seeing yourself in mirrors throughout the day.  Given the stress of training, no meat, greatly reduced calories and lack of a hot shower or bubble bath, I am not sure I want to see myself in a full-size mirror at the moment.  I have pretty much given up on make-up though I slather on the sunscreen.  My hair without blow-drying is very thick and wild looking.  My plan to just put it in a pony-tail has not worked because it is too bushy. It is down and dirty as once a week hair-washing outside in my big bucket is the max I can manage.  My plan is to try to not care how I look and be grateful there are no full-length mirrors around.

This week we started studying beekeeping which is something I love!   The classes were great though I am sorry to hear that none of my fellow Peace Corps trainees has owned beehives though some have worked a bit with bee-keeping.  I was hoping to be with people who could teach me more about it but this will still be a great opportunity to learn.  The exciting thing about this part of my service is that Ethiopia has such great potential for beekeeping.  With a little over 100 million people, only about 2 million households practice beekeeping, mostly small farmers.  Beekeeping has been around here since 3500 – 3000 BC but it is done in the trees which sort of makes sense since that is where bees tend to swarm when they get sick of a human provided hive.  Ethiopia has the largest bee population in Africa with 10 million bee colonies and forests magically rich in biodiversity.  With 18 agro-ecological zones, Ethiopia has the most diverse flora and fauna in Africa with 7000 plants and 400 nectar plants. There are five different types of honeybee races and African bees tend to me more aggressive than bees in America.  They can sting more than once like a yellow jacket but the good news is they produce more honey.  The African “killer bees” I heard about when I was young were actually not from Africa but created by a British scientist trying to capture the gentleness of an Italian bee and the productivity of an African bee – he failed.  Typically European or Italian bees are used in the U.S. at least where I was in Virginia (I used to call mine “Beatrice in Italian” – only a few of you will get that joke.) 

One of the reasons beekeeping has not caught on as much here is that the hives are cylinders high in trees and when they are cut down, most of the bee colony is lost which is very sad on all sorts of levels.  I would also guess that since Ethiopia is rich in sugarcane and they use lots of sugar in their delicious coffee, honey is not used as much as sugar here which is probably true in the U.S. as well, at least from my observation. Using the cylinder style is much cheaper and requires less skill but ends up with a lot of bee-stung farmers producing less honey full of wax, pollen and dead bees. 

The Peace Corps has a middle approach between using cylinders and the “new” modern hives which are like boxes (“supers”) and use frames with sheets for the bees to brood (breed) or make honey.  A box of sorts is made with local wood and mud and top bars are made for the bees to create a colony and make honey working from one end of the hive to the other, sometimes with a sort of queen excluder in the middle to avoid larvae mixed with honey.  In this way, when they take the top bars with honey, they can lightly brush bees away and save most of the hive, allowing them to continue brooding and producing honey.  While it may not be much more nutritious than sugar, it does have medicinal qualities, can lead to more honey and honey wine production, and provide a new source of income for farmers that is ecologically friendly and delicious. 

My team is learning about taking care of chickens and we had to separate out a chicken being pecked on by other chickens from one of our newly made coops.  Chickens can be quite carnivorous so a weaker chicken can be bullied.  After a few days of being separated, she seems to be holding her own in the coop and her strangely open beak is now back to normal. 

The garden in my compound was doing well until one of the sheep (it seemed by the hoofs) managed to get in and stomp or eat some of the cabbage.  All was not lost, but it was disappointing to lose some of the garden.  Our compost bin is stinky and gross so that is a good thing.

That is all I have to report for now.  Some of you messaged that you were glad I was happy.  I wouldn’t say I was “happy” exactly but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything even if it isn’t sipping red wine in a restaurant in Paris or putting my feet in a fountain in Rome or viewing fine art at the Prado in Spain.  When I got back to my house from my language test, my host Mom made me beef tibs, onions and hot green peppers with injera.  I have not had good meat in several weeks and it was “Yatafital!” or “Delicious!” and the company was fine. There are many ways to find different kinds of happy even if they are not comfortable or elegant and I am on that journey with or without a mirror.  Ciao!

Weeks 3 and 4 of Pre-Service Training Gardens, Chickens, Weddings and Love

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

It is the end of Week 4 and I am now able to use my smartphone though my town does not have Wi-Fi available.  Unfortunately, I’ll still need to go to a bigger town to get Wi-Fi to post my blog so it is my hope that I’ll be able to post tomorrow when I have Pre-Service Training with my team in a bigger town.

Over the past couple of weekends, I had language class for four hours on Saturday morning and washed my clothes outside in plastic tubs.  It was pretty relaxing to sit in the sun and observe the cows and sheep and a newly acquired chicken.  Except for an occasional egg, I am eating vegetarian at the moment.  I miss meat and have fantasized about eating that chicken – roasted or fried – either would be good.  I believe there is a tradition of fasting from meat for over 100 days of the year in Ethiopia for most religions.  The freshly prepared food is really good though and includes along with the daily injera, other bread, rice and pasta, potatoes, carrots, collard greens, beets, tomatoes, lentil stew, bananas and many small cups of coffee. 

My friends and I decided to get out of town after Week 2 but there is no one around our town that seems to own a vehicle, even the host families considered “rich” by these standards.  There are lots of donkey carts with one particularly cute little donkey that has a big furry unibrow that we often admire.  Public transportation is it and is pretty wild in Ethiopia as the buses are very old, filled to beyond total capacity and not very comfortable, with no air-conditioning and terrible roads with potholes to navigate.  My three friends and I expected the trip to be much shorter but with all of the stops for people lugging water jugs or on their way to weddings, it was over an hour. 

Once in town, we went to a Peace Corps office which has good Wi-Fi, had a so-so lunch at a restaurant and enjoyed watching a big wedding party arriving at another hotel for a reception.  The Sunday before many of us were brought to a wedding in our small town and several of us were brought up at the request of the bride and groom for a picture with them and their bridal party.  Ethiopians are famous for extravagant weddings and the one at the hotel was large, so my friends and I enjoyed seeing the wedding crowd in sparkling attire.  We ran into trouble however when we went to catch a bus back to our post and bus after bus went by completely packed.  Apparently, January is THE wedding month and most weddings take place on Sunday.  It was the first time in my 52 years I broke curfew as we are expected to get back to our host families by dark for our own safety and so our host families don’t worry about us.  I felt like a little kid rushing to get home in time, letting my Peace Corps contacts know we were going to be late.  I can tell you Peace Corps takes our safety and security very seriously, but I didn’t get grounded, thankfully.

Last week in training, our focus was on gardening and we were double-digging gardens and setting up compost piles for some host families as practice for our permanent sites.  We had an interesting program on Climate Smart Agriculture for development – a G015 2009 initiative whose focus is on sustainability through intensification of productivity, strengthening resilience through adaption to climate variability, and reducing agriculture’s contribution to climate change through mitigation of agricultural impacts. We learned that our goal in Peace Corps is to reduce exposure to shocks, reduce sensitivity and increase adaptive capacity because developing countries have more trouble adapting to climate change and are more susceptible to shocks like flooding, high temperatures and erratic rainfall.  Ethiopia is working towards a “green economy” supporting such projects as the water dam to reduce the need for coal, a railroad transit project, reducing methane producing cattle (though not a popular idea with everyone – somewhat understandably if you are like me and craving a steak!) and cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide. 

While my host family eats quite well, I hope we can add some nutritious diversity to their diet that they will enjoy. For example, sweet potatoes/orange yams have been encouraged because they provide some of the nutrients that are often lacking such as Iron, Iodine, Zinc and Vitamin A.  My host Dad is a strong man and a fine person and was out helping us turn the soil.  I do not forget that most of the people around me have been farming the land here for forever. After all, Ethiopia is one of the oldest agricultural societies in existence.  They know a lot more about farming than I ever will but even small changes to improve nutrition and productivity can have big benefits.  One program provided to us had a slide that read that often Peace Corps volunteers will never get to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant.  I will try to keep that in mind if I ever feel like my efforts are not meaningful or relevant.

Over last weekend, I tried to get more organized, washed my very dirty hair and decided to go on a hike with a few trainee friends.  It was wonderful to sit out in an open field under a beautiful acacia tree, drink a little red wine and see some beautiful birds and many cows out on the pasture.  I am excited about bird-watching here as I am already seeing beautiful, colorful birds I didn’t know existed. The ones I have noticed most are little finches in red and a pretty blue – firefinches and cordon bleu finches.  My friend gave me great pair of binoculars and a book on birds living in the horn of Africa that I know I will enjoy while here over the next couple of years.

Speaking of birds, this week, our agricultural focus was on building chicken coops and learning about the care and feeding of chickens.  Of course, I had experience with chickens on my farm in Virginia, but it was easy there to run to Tractor Supply and get all of the feed and supplies you could ever want.  I am excited to try some of the information provided and hoping I will not experience the hardships that can occur when disease strikes.  Peace Corps is encouraging people to build coops for their chickens to provide eggs to improve nutrition for families (and possibly offer another source of income), to keep chickens healthier and safer from predators, and to keep families safer from unsanitary conditions of allowing chickens to be kept in or too close to the home.  Some American families learned after getting chicken coops that getting too close to chickens can be dangerous as they are feathery vehicles for salmonella. I had a good time sawing and hammering our coops and spending time with my team and the wonderful family that benefited from our efforts.  Hopefully, some of the pictures will download this time but, if not, I will keep trying.

Amharic language training is really fun but also very difficult.  Amharic is considered by some one of the top ten hardest languages to learn.  My class plays a lot of Jeopardy and Concentration-like games and we have a lot of laughs as we increase our vocabulary.  Though I spent some time studying it over the summer it is challenging to learn the verb conjugation rules.  My teacher says my pronunciation is good and I think that is because I put a lot of time into learning the fidal – the Amharic “alphabet” of over 200 symbols and sounds stemming from Arabic and Hebrew.  I still feel overwhelmed with all that I need to memorize but I try to take it in stride.  I will have a tutor when I get to site to help me throughout my service.  It will also be easier to learn out of necessity when I am at site as I won’t have 50 Peace Corps trainees around me, all of us speaking English. 

I will close with a Happy Valentine’s Day message to allof my friends and family, hoping I can post this on February 14.   While visiting another host family, they played their wedding video.  In it, there are several traditions I thought were quite charming and interesting. First, the groomsmen and other men “fight” with the groom when he comes home to claim his bride, literally surrounding his car and chanting with vigor.  They make a lot of noise and challenge him. Second, once in the house the bridesmaids try to keep him from getting to her and they also give him a hard time before stepping aside. These efforts go on for quite a while and are almost an elaborate dance of sorts.  Finally the groom must beg his bride to marry him. She will take her time in accepting him despite the fact they are obviously decked out in beautiful wedding clothes to be married, While I cannot say how this originated. I can say that to me it said that love is something worth fighting for but it is never to be given away too quickly or easily. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Observations

I miss my farm… my gardens, goats, chickens, beehives and dogs.

The logical solution for me is to pack my bags and head to Ethiopia to try to do some good in the world. I am currently a Peace Corps Invitee and will begin three months of training on January 18, 2019, flying to Addis Ababa on the 19th. Right now, I am packing like crazy for my 27 month commitment and I am very excited!

Please follow me to share my African adventure and contact me if you have any comments or questions.

Ciao!

Michelle

Peace Corps G20

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

HOST FAMILY AND COMMUNITY

My team, Group 20, has departed Addis Ababa and each of us has been placed with a host family while we are in Pre-Service Training (PST).   We were provided some information and a presentation on living with an Ethiopian family, information about our host family members, and some other details.  My family is wonderful and very kind and includes Dad, Mom, and adorable and spunky  5- year-old and 1-year-old girls.  My room in the house in the compound is small but sufficient and I have a window that looks out at a haystack, two cows and two sheep.  The process of adapting has been fairly easy as I tried to prepare myself mentally for rural Ethiopian life.  I would not be honest if I did not say it is still a shock to the system, both body and mind, to adapt to this way of living. 

A shared pit latrine is a big change for any American and while some days I am glad to say it is no big deal, other days it is a challenge especially as everyone’s body is adapting to the food, water filtering and monitoring, shots and the meds given to us.  Some of the trainees have gotten ill briefly but all of us seem to be taking everything in stride.  I am lucky so far in that I’ve only had nasal congestion but it results in chapped lips and scratchy throat from breathing through my mouth.  At the end of many days this week, many of the trainees in my village arrive at a very small bar for a cold drink since most of our homes do not have refrigerators and we cannot use ice even if it were available because it is not filtered.  I thought I’d given up soda for the most part but now I look forward to and treasure a cold Pepsi or Mirinda, the African orange pop.

This smallholder farm is very typical in Ethiopia and often is no larger than an acre or two and includes gardens and livestock.  This week I enjoyed learning how to make injera, the flat fermented pancake like bread that Ethiopians eat at most every meal.  There are also big red peppers smoking in the smokehouse that my host “Mom” (though I am old enough to be her mother), will turn into berbere, the famous Ethiopian red spice used in so many dishes.  It is the pride of many Ethiopian women to have their own secret recipe for their berbere which is very red and includes a lot of paprika. 

The people in my town are quite friendly, especially the children, and they seem aware that we are Peace Corps volunteers or somehow at least not tourists.  The adults smile when we use our fledgling Amharic greetings and the kids run up to us and say “You, you, you!” or “Bye Bye!”  The small shopkeepers are glad to have our business as we buy toilet paper, laundry detergent and mobile phone charging cards.  I already feel quite safe walking around by myself though my Peace Corps friends and my host Dad are with me much of the time. 

The pre-service training makes sense to me now as it would be very difficult to go straight into service without adapting to the language, culture and allowing the body to adjust to the changes of life in Ethiopia.  I feel confident that by the end of the PST in a few months, I will be in good shape to move to my site/post.  By then, I should be adapted to the regimen recommended by Peace Corps staff regarding health, safety and security including water purification methods, malaria prevention and treatment medications as well as a bed-net, food safety skills and general cultural considerations.  Though lucky to be spared thus far, I have now learned more about diarrhea and its prevention than I ever wanted to know.  The first few days for my fellow trainees proved somewhat rough but the medical care has been great.

We are just beginning training in agriculture and nutrition and began garden projects yesterday. The goal is to increase these small farms’ food security by helping to install home gardens that produce more variety and better nutrition for the family.  We are learning that even if there is enough food to escape hunger, the lack of proper nutrients leave many children malnourished and by the age of two some of the physical and cognitive damage is permanent.  My team were enthusiastic to learn about measuring slopes and “double digging” and we will be working on several garden projects including one at my host family’s compound.  Once in service at our individual sites, we will be working with 5-6 small farms to begin with and then trying to expand the service to other farms.

Connectivity has been a problem for me that I hope to resolve next week by getting another SIM card so I can be in much more contact with everyone in the U.S.  Also, I’m having trouble posting pictures here but will figure that out as soon as I can.

I miss everyone and hope if you are in a cold place you bundle up and snuggle up and enjoy some hot chocolate for me!

BEGINNING

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

Why Blog?

Though not sure how much I’ll be able to find the time or the Wi-Fi that I’ll need during my service to post regular blogs, many people have expressed interest in hearing about this experience, and, of course, I want to bring my friends and family along with me on the journey.  I also want to provide useful information to anyone who might be considering Peace Corps, especially those who like me are over the age of 50.  I know I thought my fantasy of “chucking it all and joining the Peace Corps” was a dream of long ago, but here I am and thrilled to have the opportunity at this exact stage of my life.  Thank you for your interest and please do send me a message if you have questions or comments about anything posted on any part of the blog.

Preparation for Departure

After 7 months of great anticipation and preparation, I am finally here in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Trainee. This period involved a lot of medical clearance and other administrative tasks, spending some time studying the official language, Amharic, and putting together the items I would take for the 27-month commitment.  Fortunately, I was able to spend a lot of time travelling around visiting friends in Chicago, Florida, Virginia and D.C. and working out some to be in better physical shape for the journey.  Packing was a challenge as we are directed to pack more conservative clothes for the different weather conditions in parts of Ethiopia –hotter, dryer climates versus mountainous, cool regions.  The technical recommendations included power banks, hard drives and solar panels and was somewhat challenging.  Saying goodbye to family and friends was the hardest part but I have had so much love and support from friends that I went to staging ready and excited for the big adventure.

“Staging”

Training starts from the moment you check into Peace Corps “staging” usually near D.C., the day before the flight to your post.  The staff check nearly 50 people in and provide a very welcoming environment for the Invitees to mingle and learn even though we are there for less than a day. Everyone was nervous and excited and many frantically weighed and measured luggage, fearing strict airline requirements.  The staff presentations centered on Peace Corp history, goals and expectations and managing fear about the challenges that come along with serving.  In one case, a terrific “ice-breaker” proved quite revealing as several dozen complete strangers from all over the United States learn to guide and trust each other often showing their own strengths and weaknesses in communication.  These people, most but not all in their mid-to-late 20’s, emanated an energy that was very inspiring – so positive, so hopeful, so giving.  Wiping away any misty-eyed visions of my decades old image of Peace Corps Volunteers, from these first moments, they were all so beautiful to see and to meet face to face.


Arrival and First Week of Pre-Service Training

The 13-hour flight to Addis Ababa resulted in our happy but jet-lagged group landing into the arms of a finely tuned staff and the carefully orchestrated process of turning us into Peace Corps Volunteers began.  The staff handles the coordination of the many basic tasks (getting cell phones and visas and medical kits) like clockwork and we get to work right away.

The excellent programming on language, development, skills, safety and security involve scenarios that groups discuss and present and interesting question and answer periods to help us contemplate the many possible situations we may face.  Language classes, though intense, are exciting and Amharic is a beautiful language. Though I was glad I put some work into Amharic before I left, my classmates quickly catch on because of our outstanding teachers and the fact that we are all highly motivated. The Peace Corps provides language teachers and tutors throughout service so that we can communicate effectively with our communities.

After a week of all-day initial training, we are each being placed with host families in several regions and will continue with community-based training for about 12 weeks.  All of us are excited about meeting our host families and have brought small gifts for them.  While with the host families, there will be four hours of language each day and many classes and practicums to prepare us to integrate into the small village of between 500 and 3,000 that we will eventually serve.  Because I am in the Agriculture Sector, my field work will be in poultry, beekeeping and nutrition centered gardening while the other half of the group are in Health whose projects include working with mothers and children to improve health.  All of us will also have opportunities to work on malaria prevention projects, HIV education, gender empowerment, and disability programs. If we pass our tests throughout community based training, we will be sworn in as official Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV) before being placed at a site for two years.  Many of my fellow Trainees are anxious to get to their sites as quickly as possible and I am as well, but I am also trying to savor this entire time for the amazing experience it is and anticipate the potential for great service to our communities at our sites.

The Peace Corps staff works diligently to choose our host families and our eventual sites, considering many factors and seeking the safest and most possibly productive sites available. Most of the sites have never had a PCV and it may be their first opportunity to have an American living among them. The leaders of the community must request the Peace Corps to place a volunteer with them and these leaders assign co-partners to work with volunteers on projects that are mutually-agreed upon endeavors.  In training, we are provided numerous scenarios and instruction on using our knowledge, skills and attitudes to effectively manage successful outcomes in our efforts to promote development.

Arrival in Addis Ababa!

Closing Thoughts on My First Week with Peace Corps

Last night after a long day of training on medical safety, language and several shots in my arm, a very nice gentleman in his early sixties approached me and asked me if I was with Peace Corps.  He told me as a child growing up in Ethiopia, a Peace Corps Volunteer had sponsored him and how much she meant to him.  He was such a fan of the Peace Corps, he said his friends nick-named him “Kennedy.”  He went on to say that he would soon be going to Ohio to visit his daughter, a doctor in Cleveland.  His story and countless, countless others are part of why I think people join the Peace Corps and why it represents something very special and unique about the United States to this day.

Though stressful at times, this has been one of the most interesting and in some ways the greatest week of my life.  A dream I had envisioned long ago, and thought was impossible for me is now actually happening.  I long to do justice to this opportunity to serve and to encourage others to do the same despite the fact there will be many challenges ahead of me.  As I think about my fellow Trainees and our work together this first week, my heart is full of love and hope for the future, confident that the work of Peace Corps Ethiopia and around the world will continue to make meaningful, positive changes in people’s lives.

*Below is the “Core Expectations For Peace Corps Volunteers,” a topic of great discussion during our training sessions.

Core Expectations For Peace Corps Volunteers

In working toward fulfilling the Peace Corps Mission of promoting world peace and friendship, as a trainee and Volunteer, you are expected to:

1.   Prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months

2.   Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work; and, in doing so, share your skills, adapt them, and learn new skills as needed

3.  Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship, if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service

4.  Recognize that your successful and sustainable development work is based on the local trust and confidence you build by living in, and respectfully integrating yourself into, your host community and culture 

5.  Recognize that you are responsible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your personal conduct and professional performance

6.  Engage with host country partners in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning, and respect

7.  Work within the rules and regulations of the Peace Corps and the local and national laws of the country where you serve

8.  Exercise judgment and personal responsibility to protect your health, safety, and well-being and that of others

9.  Recognize that you will be perceived, in your host country and community, as a representative of the people, cultures, values, and traditions of the United States of America

10.  Represent responsibly the people, cultures, values, and traditions of your host country and community to people in the United States both during and following your service