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!