November 19, 2010

Desmond Has a Barrow in the Marketplace

Aaaand now Oblidi Oblida is stuck in my head.... (Yeah, three Beatle references in a row…they’re the greatest band ever, what can I say? [Not to be mistaken with my favorite band ever, obviously, Hanson…just to clarify in case there was any doubt as to my allegiance.])

So, this is just a precursor to a possible future blog (I say “possible” because I have yet to determine whether a future blog will be warranted), as it is about the local market in Debre Zeyit—I still have not been to the BIG Marketo in Addis (and it is BIG—allegedly the second-biggest market in all of Africa), although I intend to pay a visit this Saturday.  Nonetheless, the market in DZ is an experience that I wish to share.

The local market is admittedly much like the images of African markets which are portrayed in National Geographic, travel shows, and Hollywood movies—it is a noisy, crowded, bustling, maze of colorful makeshift stalls, tables, and tarps strewn about and covered in goods of nearly every kind imaginable, separated by narrow, dusty paths full of people bartering, shop owners wheeling carts full of produce, and the occasional goats and chickens sleeping under the shade of tables or sneaking an afternoon snack on inadequately guarded grains—and it is all beautiful.  There is some semblance of order in this chaotic scene: the market is divided into several sections: produce, pottery, baskets, spices, fabrics/tailors, pre-made clothes, pre-made knick-knacks, small café stalls, etc.—however that’s where the order ends, at least by my account. 

My favorite part of the market is the fabric portion.  This is one of the “nicer” parts, in terms of the quality of the stalls—while the stalls throughout the rest of the market are rather haphazardly constructed of discarded plastic and metal scraps, the fabric section consists of twenty or so cement stalls, each full of dozens of varieties of breathtakingly beautiful traditional fabric.  Traditional fabric is extraordinarily striking in my opinion—it is a white muslin with extremely ornate, colorful (sometimes sparkly) patterned edges, usually between 2-6 inches, ranging from brilliant purples, to reds, golds, blues, and greens—nearly every color of edging imaginable is available.  The fabric is not sold by the yard, but is arranged by the type of item for which it is to be used—for instance there is a certain amount of fabric needed to make a dress, and a different amount of fabric needed for a scarf, blanket, etc. (it is not pre-cut in the shape that will be sewed, however—that is for the tailor to do).  Each stall is adorned with hangers with sample finished-products—ornate dresses, shirts, and blankets—none of which can actually be purchased, but all of the supplies necessary to complete these creations are available within the stall.  Instead, after purchasing a fabric, one can proceed to the area directly adjacent to the fabric section, which contains a sea of tailors—almost all male—amidst a flurry of fabric flowing through their old-fashioned non-electric Singer-style sewing machines, and have your project made there.  It’s a rather frantic scene, but incredibly beautiful, and dangerous for me, because I want to buy everything there!

Another favorite area of mine is the area with the spices and grains.  Stall after stall with gigantic bags overflowing with a selection of ground spices far greater than you can imagine, heaps of crystal white unground salt, bright red spicy dried peppers—which at times fill the air with such potency that one can hardly breathe without coughing, nor see without the blur of watering eyes—and more varieties of grains than I even knew existed.  It is truly a feast for the senses, with more smells and vibrant colors than can be captured by words or photos.

The produce section is similar—a patchwork of colors.  Piles upon piles of brown and red potatoes, purple shallots, green cabbage, yellow carrots, red tomatoes, lush, leafy greens, fresh herbs of every variety imaginable—all stacked nearly as tall as I am, usually with young children perched on a stool nearby, clamoring to make a sale. 

As you navigate your way through the alleys of the market, the various temperaments of the salesmen is incredibly apparent—some overzealous younsters shouting at each customer, trying to generate business, others are older and barely seem to manage to stay awake, almost failing to notice potential customers.  Of course haggling is commonplace, but more challenging than that is attempting to purchase non-industrial quantities of items—it seems that most people who frequent the market are serving large families (farenji’s typically frequent the small, slightly more westernized markets on the main street, not the actual marketplace), so when my friend and I were simply trying to purchase enough for a few meals, we had an incredibly difficult time trying to explain that we did not want to buy 3 dozen potatoes. 

Standing amidst the vibrant hum of the marketplace is definitely one of the instances which produces what my former Bots PCV’s referred to as a TIA (This Is Africa) moment—slightly surreal and entirely mesmerizing—and makes me once again profoundly grateful for this experience.

With a Little Help from My Friends (or Complete Strangers)

Another quick note, but once again, I want to share a little slice of Ethiopian culture…I seriously freaking LOVE it here…

In Ethiopia (or at least in my fairly large village), perhaps because of the sheer volume of people, or perhaps as a small measure of privacy (privacy is still an almost entirely western concept here, as in many places throughout the world), strangers are not expected to greet or speak to each other unless the situation warrants it, much like in America (i.e. no need to talk to everyone you pass on the street).  (Of course, as a farenji, a large number of people try to speak to me, but that’s for entirely different reasons.)  However despite this social norm, people are remarkably quick to come to one another’s aid when distressing situations occur. 

For instance, in the situation I described in an earlier blog, when a horse carrying a cart fell, a large group of men rushed to her aid, and persisted kindly helped her until she was back on her feet.  Similarly, when a minibus stalled, passers-by—even some who were quite well-dressed—immediately began pushing it to the side of the road.  On one occasion, a man began following me aggressively, trying to grab me and shouting “farenji” (something that is remarkably uncommon here—although people may try to get me to talk to them, very few are at all threatening or harassing), a total stranger ran across the street and pulled the man from me, yelling at him in Amharic, telling him that it is not okay to treat me that way.  On another occasion, I took a bajaj home from a friends’ house; we had a agreed on a price, but when I went to leave, he doubled it (again, incredibly uncommon here).  I refused to pay the extra money and he began to yell at me.  A woman at a shop nearby burst out of her shop, asked what happened, and told the man to leave, grabbing me and bringing me to my shop—she didn’t let me leave until he was out of sight, and then she walked me all the way to my door.  (The following day, I gave her a scarf and candle to thank her for her kindness—gift-giving is a common form of thanks here.)

In my short time here, I’ve witnessed similar occurrences time and time again, and each time it still creates a warm fuzzy feeling—a sense of incredible comfort and safety.  When I arrived, I asked the director of my NGO what the Amharic word for “help” was.  He told me, but quickly assured me that there was no way I would ever need to use it.  At the time, I thought he was simply trying to quiet any concerns I may have had for my safety, but now I see what he meant—it is superfluous to ask for help here; it comes naturally.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

This is going to be a quick one—there are just so many aspects of Ethiopian culture that I want to capture and share, even if it means writing in small snippets here and there.  So here goes…

Like many countries around the world, Ethiopia is all about the PDA (physical displays of affection). However, unlike America, this PDA is strictly not to be directed towards significant others—in fact, public physical contact between romantic partners is almost entirely nonexistent and severely frowned upon if one wants to remain within the confines of social norms.  Instead, physical affection is directed toward friends and is a signal of platonic fondness for one another.  As such, men are frequently seen holding hands with other men, women walking side by side, arm-in-arm, and I find myself walking to and from all of my classes with a glom of students at my side, arms around my waist, holding hands, and leaning against me.  When I first arrive in class, all of the girls run towards me and kiss me on the cheek, and the boys shake hands and bump shoulders with me (this is the traditional casual greeting for men—for women the European kissing of the cheek, minus the jubilant cannon-ball-like hug is common, but my students are great and full of love, so what can I say?!) 

As an American, where platonic touching is almost completely culturally forbidden, I must admit it was a bit off-putting at first—the prolonged hand-holding throughout the twenty-minute walk to the main road produced a level of awkwardness that almost made my stomach churn (although I obviously made no indication of this to my students, as it was clear that I was the odd man out for maintaining this sentiment).  However, having been here for a month or so now, it’s strange how comforting touch really is—I now count myself among the locals, who feel more awkward when walking or sitting next to a friend and NOT holding hands or touching in some way.  And it’s nice to be able to give my students a pat on the shoulder for a job well done, or a small hug if they feel embarrassed after speaking incorrectly in class, without worrying that such a gesture will be misconstrued or that I will be reprimanded for such an action. 

It is also comforting, because since touching is a sign of friendship, it is equally inappropriate for strangers to touch, so unlike in Botswana, where I was constantly groped, pulled on, and expected to put up with it because to refuse to be touched was considered rude, here when the occasional guy tries to grab my hands, it is entirely socially acceptable for me to pull away and tell him “no.”

…like I said, this was a short one, but just one of the many cultural nuances that I love and wanted to convey.

Holes, Lakes, Vets, and My Own Private God (oh, and more coffee) (Also, longest blog EVER--sorry!)

I probably should be at least slightly ashamed that today began with me falling in a hole, and nearly concluded with me being locked in a bathroom, but anyone who knows me would probably expect nothing less—I am absurdly clumsy, and I haven’t fallen in public in a few months, so it seems fitting that my fall would be in broad daylight, on the biggest street in Debre Zeyit (and consequently witnessed by many, many people), into a sudden 6-foot drop, because I’m busy looking across the street, trying to avoid getting lost, and resulting in two huge welts, a bloody pant-leg (which would stay with me for the rest of the day), and slightly less embarrassment than I probably should’ve felt (but I have become quite accustomed to the mishaps that my lack of coordination and easily distracted temperament have afforded me).  Nonetheless, today is among the better days I’ve had—an I-need-to-pinch-myself/how-did-I-ever-get-this-lucky? kind of day.

Today a friend of my host family offered to take me out on some hikes and to show me more of Debre Zeyit.  We were to meet at 2:30 and then spend the day exploring the village .(Incidentally, 2:30 really means 8:30am—Ethiopia operates on a 12-hour clock like the us, except 12:00am in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00am in the US, and 12:00pm in Ethiopia is the equivalent of 6:00pm in the US.  In other words, the clock starts when the sun rises and ends when the sun sets.  Overall, I think it’s a much more rational system, however it creates significant confusion for visitors if you forget to specify whether an agreed upon meeting time or event is using the Western or Ethiopian clock.  [Incidentall, Ethiopia also operates on a different calendar, and it’s currently 2003 here…woohoo, looks like I’ll be turning 21 in a week instead of 28!] But I digress…)  At roughly 2:15 I fell in a hole, but still managed to find our meeting spot on time, and we were off. 

We began the day by visiting Lake Bishoftu, my new favorite of the three lakes in Debre Zeyit.  It is the least developed (farenji [foreigner] hotels have a knack for sprouting up on the edges of most of the lakes here, creating beautiful views for tourists, but destroying the serenity for everyone else, at least in my opinion).  All of the lakes in Debre Zeyit are volcanic lakes—meaning they are essentially circular, quite deep, and enclosed by the rim of the former volcano.  Bishoftu is the largest of the lakes and has by far the steepest slope to reach the water.  Navigating the dusty, narrow, near-vertical path down, which is almost entirely free of switch-backs (read: it goes straight down), felt more like scaling a two-hundred-foot cliff than taking a stroll to a lake.  (Normally this would’ve excited me, but I will confess to feeling a tad of anxiety following my display of grace and dexterity earlier in the day.) 

As a result of the sharp incline, Bishoftu is the second-deepest lake in Ethiopia (or so I am told).  Its depth, combined with the difficulty of access and the demon that is fabled to live in the lake and occasionally cause many fish to die and float to the surface (we were in luck and did not encounter any such creature during our visit) render it a fairly unpopular spot for locals to wash clothes and bathe, or to visit in general, for that matter, apart from a few daring swimmers (many of whom were clad only in several pieces of discarded Styrofoam strung together by a rope and strewn around the waist as a sort of lifevest).  Because of its lack of popularity with the locals, it is remarkably clean, relative to the stagnation of the water (since it is a volcanic lake, it is not fed or drained by any rivers or streams), and because there are only a few hotels on its rim, it is almost entirely un-landscaped, so the native plants remain in-tact nearly all the way around the lake.  One of the many things I love about Ethiopia is how many endemic (exclusive-to-Ethiopia) species there are, and Lake Bishoftu is home to many, including many brightly colored flowers, which create bright flecks of color throughout the ridge which surrounds the lake.

Following our descent to the shore, we loitered for a bit, wandering around and observing the various birds soaring from the trees to the lake, and bobbing atop the water, then we scuttled back up to the top of the hill, trudged past the fancy hotels directly adjacent to the slums and shanty homes which are prevalent throughout DZ, and continued our tour of the village.

As fate would have it, Debre Zeyit is home to one of the ten veterinary schools in Ethiopia, and my new friend is a graduate student at the school—both pieces of news delighted me of course, given how much I love animals.  One thing I’ve eluded to before, but haven’t had a chance to write about in detail, is how incredibly impressed I am by the Ethiopian culture’s respect for animals.  Companion cats and dogs are nearly ubiquitous, and unlike Botswana, where any animals you see—regardless of species—are starving and terrified of humans because they are badly abused by almost everyone, in Ethiopia, nearly every animal you encounter, from goats to chickens, to dogs and cats, is entirely comfortable around people, used to being pet and treated kindly.  Many people allow animals in their homes, and all animals I’ve seen are generally as well-fed as their human guardians. 

The only exceptions that I’ve noted are the horses and donkeys used for transport and hauling goods.  These animals are typically overworked (incidentally, this is the case for most horses used for carriages in America, too, so I am not in any way pointing fingers).  However, it seems to be the case that most people here hold a certain level of respect even for these animals—for instance, while I was running, I saw a horse fall down while pulling a cart.  The man driving the cart began to beat and whip the horse trying to get her to stand.  All of the people around, myself included, looked on in horror, but after only a few seconds, nearly a dozen men (and I, of course) rushed to the scene, made the driver stop beating the horse, and gently helped the horse stand.  I’ve seen far worse atrocities toward animals take place publicly in the States, without even a hint of such a reaction, so if Gandhi was right and “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” then I think by that account, Ethiopia is doing quite well.  But again, I digress... 

As I was saying, Debre Zeyit is home to a veterinary school, which also houses an SPCA and horse and donkey sanctuary.  These facilities provide veterinary care free-of-charge for working and companion animals (but not farmed animals which will generate profit for their guardians).  Once my friend discovered my love of animals, he insisted on taking me for a tour of the school.  It was remarkably similar to a University in the States—complete with co-ed dormitories, a computer lab, several cafeterias, and a volleyball and soccer field (none of which are commiserate with Western standards, of course, but they are very nice nonetheless [and the more traveling you do, the less important Western standards of living seem {apart from hot showers, that is…I stand firmly by my adoration of hot showers. And toilet paper}]).  Although I was not allowed into classrooms, the academic facilities seemed excellent and comprehensive, containing everything from a pathology lab, to a surgical lab, and vaccination clinic (and many, many other departments, which I cannot recall at the moment). 

As I’ve mentioned before, another thing I really love about Ethiopian culture is the attention to detail.  As my friend and I were exploring the campus, I noticed something I’d seen almost everywhere throughout Debre Zeyit—most of the large windows had white “X”’s painted on them.  I’d been curious about this for a while, but this was the first opportunity I had to ask what the X’s signified.  I was expecting that they had something to do with construction or window-cleaning.  In fact, my friend informed me, they are to prevent birds from flying into them and dying.  How often does this happen in the States—ALL the time—but our culture is either too callous or vein (or some combination of both) to even permit putting big X’s on windows, let alone making such an act commonplace.  I don’t mean to vent about American culture (as I’ve said before, on a whole, my travels have made me far more appreciative of it), it’s just that it’s nice to experience a culture which has such respect for animals, and which takes the care and effort, even when resources are scarce, to look out for the “little things” like the wild birds. (Another cool random fact: the headmaster of one of my schools has even started a global warming club, working to promote tree-planting and environmental awareness, and his work has dramatically shaped the school campus, but that’s another story…)  It almost makes up for the man who sells goat heads right outside of one of the schools where I teach.

Following our visit to the veterinary school, we proceeded to the second of our three-lake tour: Lake Hora.  This is the one lake in DZ that I had visited before, as was evidenced by the several locals who shouted “Chelsea!” a la Cheers, once I arrived (as a Farenji, most people talk to me and ask my name, and since my name happens to be shared by a football team, most people I meet easily remember it, making such greetings less infrequent than one might expect).  Despite my prior visits to the lake, however, today something quite different was in store.

One thing which distinguishes Lake Hora from the other two lakes in DZ is that it is a holy spot for one of the local ethnic groups.  As such, it is the site of periodic religious ceremonies (I say “periodic” because every time I have asked one of my local friends how often the ceremonies are, I am told anywhere from every 6 months to every year, but each of the three times I’ve been to the lake, there has been some sort of ceremony taking place, so your guess is as good as mine…).  When we arrived at the lake we were greeted by the sweet, spicy scent of incense burning, and smokey smell of roasting coffee wafting up the hill.  These fragrances have become quite familiar in the month or so since I arrived in Ethiopia, as coffee ceremonies are a common way of welcoming a guest (among other things), however my experience today was far from ordinary.

Now, before I proceed with my story, it is incredibly important to me to clarify something: one of my biggest pet peeves is when people go other countries and turn traditional activities and ceremonies into a spectacle, a curiosity; a tourist attraction where other cultures are perceived as strange, naïve, and with (usually subtle) condescension.  I do not know how what I write will wind up sounding, and I have no control over how you choose to read it, however I want to make it clear that my intention in writing this arises purely out of respect for the culture, and a wish to share the beautiful experience that I was very fortunate to have.

Anyway…as my friend and I proceeded down the hill towards the lake, we were greeted by a slightly less familiar sight: a crowd of people gathered around a large tree near the lake shore, women adorned in brightly-colored skirts and dresses, with large shawls draped over their heads and shoulders, sitting in several different circular groups.  Several women were standing at the water’s edge, burning incense and pouring perfume, milk, honey, and barley into the water, then walking to the tree and covering various spots on the tree with the leftovers, all the while chanting rhythmic prayers.  Not wanting to intrude, I suggested to my friend that perhaps we should proceed to the next lake, however almost as the words were leaving my mouth, an elderly man from the group approached my friend and began to speak to him in Amharic (or Oromic, the local language—could’ve been either as far as I know…).  I was immediately worried that we had caused a disturbance, but quite on the contrary—my friend informed me that the gentleman from the group had invited me to join them.  I asked my friend if he thought it was a good idea, and he said yes—their invitation was sincere and they would not do anything “weird” to me—so I agreed.

I was ushered into one of the larger circles of people seated near the trees, and immediately cloaked in a shawl—apparently showing your head during the ceremony is very bad—and just like that, I was a slightly puzzled participant.  Inside the circle was a large tray with twenty of so of the traditional small espresso-sized coffee cups adjacent to a pot of coffee already roasting atop a bed of freshly cut reeds from the lake, a dozen or so sticks of incense stuck in various places on the ground, slowly burning away, a large variety of breads—from two-sided injera to the traditional LARGE (2-3’ in diameter) circular white bread, and various others that I am unfamiliar with—and a tray full of roasted barley, peanuts, popcorn, and other grains.  As one of the women roasted the coffee, the others in the circle sat cross-legged with their hands on their knees, palms open to the sky, and heads bowed.  One member of the group chanted a prayer while the others chanted rhythmic “Amen…amen…amen”’s.  After a while, the members of the group began singing an upbeat song and clapping; throughout the song, random members of the group burst out hisses and gutteral sounds, as the rest of the group continued singing and clapping. 

As I sat there rather bewildered, brimming with questions, but not about to ask any of them, for fear of disrupting the ceremony, one of the women in the group presented me with some of the grains, then an elderly man passed around a plate of bread, and the woman preparing the coffee handed me a cup.  I looked to my friend to be sure that it was alright for me to partake in the food and drink offered to me, and he nodded.  As I was drinking the coffee, I was given a large branch of chat—a green leafy plant that many local people chew because it is allegedly a stimulant, slightly less potent than coffee.  Again I looked to my friend, and he nodded that it was okay, and I recalled speaking with a fellow volunteer from England who had tried the chat and said it had no effect on him, other than tasting rather bitter, so I felt it was alright to give it a try.  As I chewed a piece and rapidly concluded that my English friend’s analysis was correct, the group switched back to praying and chanting “amen,” several more women got up to walk toward the lake with offerings of perfume, milk, honey and barley, and the woman began preparing more coffee (indeed, the Day of Six Coffees [see earlier blog] was no anomaly). 

I sat, breathing in the smoke from the fire and incense, hypnotized by the rhythmic chants, and gazing upon the sparkling water in front of me and I suddenly became overwhelmed with gratitude—how lucky was I to be sitting in a country, thousands of miles from my home, amongst people I had just met, and to be welcomed in such a manner—not simply to observe a living culture, so different from my own, but to actually be allowed to participate in it; right now I could be sitting behind a desk doing data entry, but here I was in Africa, having this amazing experience.  And along with the gratitude, I began to feel almost guilty—what had I done to deserve all of this? 

Exactly as these feelings began to swell up inside of me, a middle-aged woman next to me leaned over with a smile, and began to explain the ceremony.  In rather broken English, she explained that the ceremony was about expressing gratitude toward their god for all of their good fortune, and for asking forgiveness for their flaws—remarkably, exactly the sentiments that the ceremony incited in me, without any knowledge of what was being said or done around me.  Possibly a coincidence, possibly I picked up on some subtle nuances which conveyed these ideas, but I have to admit it brought me chills nonetheless.

As the ceremony proceeded, more coffee, more breads, and more chat was served, and the kind woman next to me began sharing more information about the group’s beliefs, and little by little, I gained an understanding of what was going on around me.  Apparently, they believe a fusion of traditional religion and either Christianity or Islam (the woman said that believers of each were present).  They believe that each person has their own private God, a child of the biblical God and a traditional Godess, who takes care of them and acts as a sort of liaison between each person and the biblical God (which varies, of course, depending on whether you are Christian or Muslim).  She was quick to inform me that this personal God is not racist, and even though I am white and do not believe in him, I have one taking care of me as well.  She said that the people at this ceremony all share the same mother Goddess, and she lives at Lake Hora.  When the women pour the food into the water and onto the tree, they are making offerings to their Mother God and her children, and she said that this ceremony is done twice a year: before the winter, to pray for help surviving the season, and after the winter, to thank the private Gods for keeping them safe (incidentally, it’s the end of winter in Ethiopia now).  Occasionally during the songs and prayers, she would translate bits of the prayers to me, and when one elder man let out a startling hissing sound, she informed me that that was the sound of the individuals casting out the devil.

I honestly have no idea how long I sat with the group because the ceremony really is quite meditational and magical, even when you don’t know what’s being said (every time I’d glance at my friend to see if he was ready to leave, he signaled that it was ok—he had already told me he wanted me to learn all about Ethiopian culture, so I think he was actually pleased I was able to have such an experience), but when I got up to leave, I expressed profound thanks, and everyone smiled and waved.  I still cannot get over how incredibly welcoming Ethiopian culture is to guests—and my friend told me that they really liked me, and could tell that I was genuinely interested in learning about them, not just a farenji tourist—which delighted me, as that was my intention.

Following my “religious experience,” we went to the final lake, lake Babu Gaya (I am sure I butchered the spelling there), which was much like Lake Hora—entirely touristy, surrounded by expensive hotels, resorts, and boat docks—although slightly less polluted.  We had a soda as the sun went down—not a bright, colorful sunset by any means, but pretty nonetheless—and then took a bajaj (the correct name for the three-wheeled enclosed motorcycles) to a fairly posh restaurant where I had salad with injera (everything’s better with injera), and almost got locked in the bathroom forever (as soon as I was inside and shut the door, I realized that the inside handle was broken off, leaving me with absolutely no way of getting out; fortunately a staff member quickly came to my aid and opened it from the outside, so it was not nearly the calamity that the day began with, but still demonstrative of my luck, nonetheless), and I returned home.

All in all, it was an incredible day, and entirely exemplary of what I love about Ethiopia—it is full of natural beauty, profoundly rich living culture, and simultaneously evolving with modernity.  Also, it has a lot of coffee.

The Day of Six Coffees

That title pretty much says enough to be an entry in and of itself, right?  Especially if you’ve ever been around me to see my typical un-caffeinated energy level!  But, as those of you who’ve been kind enough to peruse through my Facebook pictures (and you’re reading my blog now—anyone who’s taken the time to do both, you are incredible!!  Much, much love!) know, The Day of Six Coffees was about a lot more than coffee. 

The second school that I teach at is located on the outskirts of town; the students from this school struggle the most to get to and from school and most spend all of their free time helping their parents with their farms.  One student approached me, full of shame and guilt, to tell me that she will not be able to attend many of my classes because there is too much work at the house—I of course reassured her that she is always welcome in class, and told her she was amazing for working so hard both at school and at home.  Another student told me that she has not seen her parents in two years because they live in the country, where she would not have access to school, so they sent her here to live with her aunt and uncle, and even though it has been a long time since she has been home, she is still plagued with homesickeness.  These students face the greatest struggles, by far, out of all of the students that I work with.  They are also the most enthusiastic, cheerful, and grateful to work with me.

My former teaching partner (he was at the end of his trip and returned to England) and I are the first volunteers to teach at this school, and as such, the students were extraordinarily excited when we began working with them.  They clinged to us when we walked through the long, dusty field back to the main road, teaching us Amharic, singing songs, and asking questions about English.  One day, several of the students began persistently asking me if I liked coffee—their diligence seemed a little odd, but since coffee is essentially THE national drink, I assumed they were just trying to see how well I’m fitting in here (people often expect farenji’s [foreigners] to dislike the local food and drink, as it is far different from most other global cuisine).  I assured them that I love coffee, and even drink it in America (something which comes as a surprise to a lot of the people I have spoken to, who think most Americans only drink instant coffee—a misconception that I am determined to rectify…).  Entirely unbeknownst to me, they had a very different motive for asking this question. 

The following day at class, all of the students began begging the other teacher and I to attend a party they wanted to throw for us (they needn’t have begged—of course we would have come regardless, but they were incredibly concerned that we would not show up), so we agreed on a time to meet at the school.  Now, I don’t know what the other teacher expected, but I anticipated that the students would have a bit of food, maybe some music, and that it was more of an excuse for the students to socialize with each other than anything else—essentially what one might expect from young teenagers in America.  (Not a diss on America, just saying…)

I could not have been more wrong.  When I arrived at the school, dressed extremely casually, and carrying a couple of packets of cookies, several of my students appeared out of nowhere, dressed in what were clearly their fanciest clothes running toward me, nearly giddy.  They grabbed my arms and rushed me to a classroom constructed of mud and straw on the far side of campus, where all of the students waited exuberantly (sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s the best description I can think of), also dressed in their finest, primarily traditional clothes.  They had cleared the room of all of its furniture, except for two chairs, which they placed next to each other—for my co-teacher and I.  They promptly placed me in my seat, and asked if the other teacher was coming.  Unfortunately, he had a commitment elsewhere, and was not able to arrive for an hour or so.  When I broke this news to the students, the room erupted in a flurry of discussion—apparently on whether to begin the party or not.  As the debate amongst the students raged on, I surveyed the room that they had so elaborately prepared.  Several of the girls hovered over the necessary components of a traditional coffee ceremony: a large tray made of dark, carved wood, with several small china espresso cups, a large bowl full of coffee and candy, an hourglass-shaped pedestal, full of fragrant burning wood, a black clay pan full of unroasted coffee beans, and a black vase-like coffee pot, all atop a pile of freshly-cut grasses.  The traditional clothing that the many of the children were wearing was incredibly beautiful—the girls in long, white muslin dresses with colorful embroidery; the boys in similar pantsuits, or brightly-colored zig-zagged patterned outfits with matching hats.  Belts and scarves with the Ethiopian flag colors—red, green, and yellow—were abundant. 

The students concluded their discussion, and a decision had been reached: begin the party now.  To my great surprise, the students had organized an entire program of events—including traditional dancing (which I was obliged to participate in, much to the dismay of anyone who may have been observing, I am quite sure), and the Ethiopian Circus, which is very similar to Cirque Du Solei (I’m sure I butchered the spelling, but don’t feel like googling it), where several students performed acrobatics and contorted their bodies into positions that make my muscles hurt even thinking about.  Throughout the performances, the students kept asking if I was enjoying it—they were so concerned that I would not approve, which is mind-boggling, because I could not have been more elated and impressed by the whole thing; it is an experience that will stay with me for the remainder of my coherent life.  My students wanted my full attention to the ceremony, so one of them hijacked my camera, so that I wouldn’t be distracted (he took plenty of pictures, and was quite proud to be the “photo-grapher”).  Throughout the performances, the girls preparing the coffee would run up to me to show me the roasted coffee, show me how they ground it and prepared it on the stove, and offer me popcorn and cake.  I was also presented with a traditional scarf, and told the Amharic name for it (which sounds a lot like Nutella), as well as a sparkly blue barrette—the kids said they pooled their money together to purchase the supplies for the event.  It took about everything in me not to cry, I was so overwhelmed. (I think if I had cried they wouldn’t have understood, and they were incredibly concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the party, so I didn’t want to send any mixed messages.)

Following the elaborate show that they put on, they presented me with a cup of coffee, full to the brim, which I delicately balanced on my saucer and carefully sipped (the coffee is much more like espresso than coffee—in other words S T R O N G).  After I finished, the students quickly collected my cup and brought me another.  Repeat.  After my third cup of coffee, I was not offered any more (and rather pleased, as I was already shaky from the first three cups, but, again, did not want to displease my students, who had gone to such remarkable efforts to welcome me). 

Just then, my co-teacher arrived, and everyone rejoiced (yay…hehe Monty Python…).  The students were extraordinarily excited, and did a repeat of all of the performances, then brought the other teacher and I another cup of coffee, and I whispered to him that I had already had sooooooo much, I didn’t want anymore.  He informed me that I was  doomed—apparently it is bad luck to serve coffee in increments other than 3 (in other words, 3, 6, 9, 12, etc. are okay, but any other numbers are unlucky) so unbeknownst to me, my acceptance of the fourth cup of coffee bound me to another two, which were eagerly served by our students.

The whole ceremony literally left me speechless—I honestly cannot get over the enthusiasm, gratitude, and motivation that these kids have, and continue to have, even a month into my classes.  They work so hard on every lesson, participate so fervently in every class, and express appreciation and affection adamantly.  Even now, several weeks after the party the students threw (like I’ve said—I actually have work to do here, which means far less time to write!), my students still astound me—they always insist on carrying my bag for me, cleaning up the classroom before and after we use it, and continue to surprise me with small trinkets and candy.  Particularly following my abysmal experience in Botswana, words cannot express how incredibly grateful and inspired working with these students makes me.

Incidentally, the title is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as since I first began writing this blog, there have actually been several more Days of Six Coffees—though none anywhere near as elaborate and heartfelt as the one put on by my students.  Ethiopian culture is extraordinarily welcoming, so for new visitors, coffee ceremonies abound, and frequently result in the consumption of far, far, far too much coffee (at least for me).