November 5, 2010

My Village...

For some reason, when I meander through the sidestreets and dirt roads of my village, Debre Zeyit, in many ways, I feel more like I have traveled in time and have popped out somewhere in Medival Europe—or perhaps I should rephrase that to say it conjures up literary and Hollywood-created images of Medival Europe, considering that I’m not quite old enough to have any basis of comparison to the real thing. 

Debre Zeyit has a few very large paved main streets, which resemble what I remember of Addis—bursting with all sorts of incredibly noisy traffic, and surrounded by a jumble of newly constructed three-story buildings and small shoddily-constructed market store-fronts. 

But to me, the soul of the village lies outside these crowded streets.  As soon as you veer off the main roads, you find yourself in a very different world.  Instead of pavement, you enter a maze of streets, some covered in cobblestone, carefully constructed in concentric circles or other ornamental patterns, regularly swept and maintained by community members; but most streets are simply dirt paths, the source of a perpetual swirl of dust in the air, tickling the nostrils and covering all who pass in a faint beige haze.  The streets are surrounded by living compounds, primarily constructed of mud and straw, some of stone and cement, and some entirely out of view, concealed by ornate, brightly colored steel gates adorned with pointy decorative arrows, or swirly filigree.  Art appears to be an important aspect of the local culture here, because even the “simpler” dwellings, walls, ditches, and other structures have hexagonal or faux-rock patterns etched into them, and as you explore, you feel surrounded by sublime beauty.  From the compounds, grow rich hanging ivy, flowering plants, and towering green trees, which draw your eyes upwards and into the surrounding, mostly uninhabited and undeveloped green mountains, encircling the village like a fortress.  The tops of some of the lower hills are adorned with single structures, like jewels on a crown: huge, brightly colored, yet stoic churches, which have a strange sort of middle-Eastern or Mediterranean appearance, and several rather treacherous-looking roads pointing up to them, creating an obvious focal point for the village.  As your eyes continue upward, your attention will almost immediately be caught by the vast wingspan of pair of giant, dark, ominous falcon-like birds gliding through the sky above, making it their own, as they survey the land below, almost like mystical protectors of the village. 

Of course, if you get too distracted in the lofty view, you’ll quickly be brought back down, as a horse-drawn cart clamors by, nearly running you over as though you were invisible (which you almost certainly will be for a bit, until the dust kicked up by the horse settles).  Although most of the other pedestrians are wearing modern clothes, there are still many women who wear traditional white, flowing dresses adorned with bright embroidery and scarves around the head and neck, adding to the feeling of being in another time.  Streets buzz with activity, lined with merchants with bins of vegetables for sale and the occasional makeshift home-based storefront, people burning trash, shepherds wearily slumped against a shady tree, watching a small herd of goats, sheep or cattle (it is rare to see animals without their caregiver here, and I must say that the vast majority of animals here are treated incredibly well, even by Western standards), all the while traditional music floats out of the compounds, and calls to prayer drone from the nearby churches. 

If you stray far enough to reach the fields, you will see a sea of yellow grassy barley and teff, and farmers out tending or harvesting the crops by hand.  It is harvesting time now, so the fields are full of men wielding large knives slashing through their crops, as the falcons (I’m calling them falcons; I have no idea what they are) gaze down from soaring above.  The finished fields are cleanly cut and evenly dotted with bundles of grain and large circular haystacks, which look almost exactly like the Monet paintings of the haystack (I am not an art buff by any means, so I don’t recall what the series of paintings was called; sorry, guys).  All the while young children play, and older children closely study their parent’s activity, preparing for their eventual participation.

Of course, there are plenty of reminders that I am not, in fact, in Medival Europe—the large trucks and bejej (I really must remember the correct word; the enclosed motorized tricycle taxies I described in an earlier blog), people talking on cell phones, occasional homes playing Shakira or Beyonce (although the vast majority of music I’ve heard here has been traditional), power lines in some places.  Some of the items sold at the markets alone are telling—modern t-shirts, “bling,” and even some very immodest undergarments (which are often in view for sale directly adjacent to tomatoes and bread).  And, obviously, technology.  And I should point out that these comments are not meant in any way to be disparaging.  On the contrary, I adore my village, and as my friends and family know, I have a very active imagination, and I rather like thinking of it in a romanticized fashion, even though it’s entirely possible that no one else sees it this way.  But to me, at least after two weeks of observation, this is Debre Zeyit.

Funny the Way It Is

Ahh yes, I’m back to my song-reference titles already!  As always, I have a hunch this will seem a bit disjointed—in part because there is too much to say to try to present it in a cohesive fashion and in part because I find myself quite busy, so it’s a little trickier (at the moment at least) to find an occasion when I have the time and energy to hash out a full entry at once.  So apologies for that!  Additionally, I am struggling a bit, because it is immensely difficult to avoid constant comparisons to my experiences in Botswana, primarily because being here, working here, has validated each and every issue that I had with my placement in Botswana, to an extraordinary degree…which is excellent, because I could not feel better about my decisions—to leave Botswana, and to return to Africa on my own terms.  Nonetheless, the intention of this blog is hardly for vindication or negativity, so I am trying my utmost to avoid references to my past experience.  Anyway…

There are a precious few moments in life when it seems that every ounce of untarnished goodness in the world—all of the pure joy, energy, hope, kindness, and na├»ve optimism—meets with every shard of badness in the world—cruelty, unfairness, anger, misery, and suffering—coalescing to form a perfect eclipse.  For those who bear witness to these moments, it feels as though for a split-second emotions have gone into in exile; nothing is left but complete numbness combined with an acute sense that the instant the moment passes, a swell of passion is imminent—though it is entirely unclear whether one will be wrought with a soul-crushing sadness or lifted into a billow of inspired laughter.

For me, these collisions, though immensely difficult to cope with, create the sparks, which continue to ignite my soul.  The lonely old man who frequented the food bank each week, on the cusp of senility, and far too frail to work, yet too proud and too grateful for our service to accept charity—instead, each week he presented one of the volunteers with a small painting of a flower and kind message, painstakingly created by his arthritic hands.  A mother cat, coldly abandoned at a shelter after each of the kittens she so proudly raised were plucked away from her—they, after all, are babies, still “cute” and “fun”—while she is sentenced to a life confined in a cage staring at the same wall day in and day out.  Even though her depression is evident each time she is passed over by would-be adopters, she somehow manages to muster a purr when someone takes the time to open her cage and pet her.  A family who lost everything—even other family members—in a hurricane, yet can express nothing but sheer happiness when they discover that their beloved dog is safe; the loving tears and joyous embraces as they are reunited.  The bright green of a young tree, pushing its way up through the suffocating trash and concrete-lined ground of a polluted urban area. 

Although the bad demonstrated instances have filled me up with sorrow, lead to sleepless nights full of anxiety and sullenness over the callousness that exists in the world, they have also instilled a perpetual sense of gratitude for all of the good fortune that my life has been colored with.  And the good in these moments elicit a sort of feeling like nothing else—a motivation to share what I have and to learn from those around me; those individuals who can stare genuine hardship in the face and smile right back, rather than reacting with anger, cynicism, or self-pity—responses with which I am all too familiar.

Though I have only been here in Ethiopia for a week, I have already had too many of these sorts of moments to even begin to count.  The kids I have the privilege of working with are among the most inspiring people I have met, and, as after-school-special as I know it sounds, I sincerely feel like I will be doing a lot more learning over the coming months than they will.

Every Monday through Friday I teach four extra-curricular English classes at two different elementary schools—one school in the mornings, one school in the afternoon.  Technically these are elementary schools, but many of my students are in their teens, and there are even several in their early twenties—education is very difficult to obtain here, and just managing to get into school can be a challenge for many.  Many of our students live locally, but many walk miles and miles over dusty roads just to have access to education.  The quality of the school facilities vary significantly, but the schools I am placed in are as bare-boned as it gets: walls constructed of mud and straw, no electricity, no running water in the bathrooms—many classrooms do not even come equipped with blackboards (my NGO is working very hard to ensure that such basic resources are available, and supplied one of the classrooms I’m working in with one).

My role is kind of a strange one.  You see, in many African countries, including Ethiopia, there is enormous cultural diversity—think the United States, pre-Western invasion; many, many, many different indigenous peoples, each with their own culture and language (that’s where I come in).  In Ethiopia, there are 83 different traditional cultural groups (well, 80-something—I’ve been told 83 more than a few times, so I’m sticking with that), and consequently 83 different languages, most of which are not mutually intelligible.  Obviously, it would be quite difficult to organize and run a country while maintaining 83 separate translations of everything (think of the mass hysteria that erupts in the US whenever the topic of making Spanish a national language is brought up), so as a result, in order to maintain order, the government has selected one traditional language—Amharic, in Ethiopia’s case—to be the national language.  Consequently, all classes in elementary school are taught completely in Amharic, rather than the traditional local language.  Some assistance may be given, but for most students, even at the beginning of their education, they are being taught in a second, not entirely familiar language. 

But it gets more difficult.  Because most African countries wish to engage in internationally on a global scale, many countries have elected to have their higher-education—high school and beyond—taught entirely in English—a third language for the vast majority of students.  Chemistry was hard enough in my first language; I can’t imagine trying to learn it from someone speaking Arabic (or Russian, or…you get the idea).  Students are provided English classes, however these classes are not taught by native speakers, and are typically not extensive enough to facilitate the skill level required to excel in the other classes.  So, that is where I come in.

Four days a week, for 1 hour each day, my students have a chance to build their confidence, practice speaking, writing, reading, and listening to English with a native speaker (me).  For me it is a challenge on many levels—I am still trying to get a sense of what they already know and what is new; I don’t speak Amharic (or Oromo, the local language) so providing explanations of new words or grammatical principles can be quite difficult; there seems to be a huge variance in students’ skill levels, both individually and from class to class, and I want the lessons to be useful to everyone, and so on.  The learning curve for me is quite steep, and while I do feel that I will get better, at the moment, I don’t feel my first week’s lessons were especially good. 

But these kids…

Speaking as someone who was a full-fledged nerd in school (actually, I suppose I didn’t need the “in school” caveat, as my nerddom certainly continues to this day), the idea of staying at school an hour or two late every single day for a purely academic after-school club would’ve made me groan.  And I didn’t have to walk to and from school with broken sandals; after school I didn’t have to walk miles to fetch a huge jug of water for my home; I didn’t have to wash my clothes by hand, tend to animals or land, as most of the kids I’m working with do.  I got to come home, wach TV, have a delicious family dinner, and still managed to find a way to complain because I had “too much homework.”  But these kids… they are so eager to learn.  Not only are each of my classes full, and each student incredibly focused and attentive (well, relative to the age-group, anyway), but each class is so full that there is a burgeoning wait-list, and while I teach, a crowd of kids forms outside, standing tip-toed by the windows and doors, struggling to hear the lessons, as the sun beats down on their shoulders.  Some of it is spectacle, of course, since I’m a farenji (foreigner), but Debre Zeyit is quite a large village, and people are used to seeing tourists and foreigners.  Many students genuinely just want access to the classes—I’ve heard stories from other volunteers of kids forging their names and saying they are on the class register when they are not; kids skipping their real classes to attend the lessons—because they know their chances of success hinge on their ability to communicate in English, and they feel they must take advantage of every bit of help they can get.  It is heartbreaking not to all of the students in, but the reality is that the classes are already so full that it is difficult to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak each day; allowing more students in would only be detrimental to the whole group

And from this scene comes the emotional eclipse I was speaking of earlier.  The rush of pride and optimism to stare out into a sea of eager, smiling faces, glimmering eyes, raised, waving hands; to receive heart-felt (and entirely unsolicited) thank-you letters carefully hand-written by students using the best English they could.  Such dedication, such gratitude and appreciation—it is overwhelming.  But then comes the sudden drop; the claustrophobic sinking feeling as I notice that the children are sitting crammed three to a desk; they wear the same torn clothes under their uniforms every day; several don’t even have pens and must borrow from me every day.  These kids work so hard—they struggle so much relative to kids in the West, yet the odds that they will ever have access to the same resources that we (myself very much included) take entirely for granted are miniscule. 

But these kids…

Now, a warning: I am once again about to venture into full-fledged sappy hippie territory on this one, but I assure, it is entirely true, and simply too poignant, if trite and obvious, not to mention.  Because I’m new, this week I was co-teaching with an English fellow who has been here for three months and is on his way out—that way I have a chance to learn and observe instead of being dropped in a classroom to fend for myself.  One of the exercises that the other volunteer has prepared is a debate—this allows students to think of how to articulate their ideas quickly, and gives them an opportunity to speak before the class.  It also helps us as teachers, because it is free-form enough to allow us to observe the students’ skill level and identify systematic errors that we may be able to design a future lesson around (like, not ending a sentence with a preposition? [Obviously none of the students are advanced enough to even know what a preposition is, but I couldn’t help but point my error out…nerd humor!]).  This week, the topic that the other volunteer selected was “Love or Money?”

Now, Debre Zeyit is a large village with a great disparity in wealth.  Most of the students I work with are living in poverty by any western standard, but even relative to some of the individuals in the community—I’ve seen students from other schools with nice cell phones(the girl living at my house has an iPhone [I told you my accommodations were posh!]), and there are people in the village with laptops.  I still haven’t seen any housing nicer than mine, but as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there is a huge difference between my accommodations and the mud and tin shanty houses in which most community members dwell.  The students I work with are aware of the impact that greater financial wealth would have on their lives.  Consequently, it seems only rational that many students would choose money—with money they wouldn’t have to worry about food; instead of walking everywhere, they could take public transport, or perhaps even obtain their own vehicle; they could buy a computer or nice clothes.  It seems perfectly understandable that these issues would be on the forefront of the students’ minds. 

But these kids… 

Out of the entire group of 70 or so students in my four classes, only one or two said money—each and every other student argued in favor of love, most saying they didn’t have money, but they had love, and love is the foundation for everything; without love, everything crumbles (perhaps I should introduce them to the teachings of John Lennon ;o). 

Those who did argue for money, did not use the sort of argument that you would expect.  Not one student said they wanted money for nice clothes, a big house, a TV.  One student said he chose money because without money none of the students there would be able to attend school, and without school and education, life is empty.  He argued that if he had more money, he could buy books and uniforms for everyone, and make sure the school had the supplies it needed.  Another argued for money because then he could help family and community members that had fallen on hard times.  Not one student made a selfish or materialistic argument. 

Hearing these arguments made so passionately in very broken English was incredibly humbling, and invoked the emotional eclipse I’ve been describing.  And while these sorts of moments have already caused tears, even in the short time I’ve been here, that day, as I walked home surrounded by students holding my hands (holding hands is a platonic sign of friendship here), singing songs and giggling as they try to teach me Amharic, all I felt was a rush of love.  Silly, happy, proud love.