Sunday, September 16, 2012

Never been words more wise

"Why do you want to go visit the hippos? Has a hippo ever come to visit you"

- Danny, leader of the Rastas in Shashamane, Ethiopia, responds to our plans to see the hippos at dawn. We went, but we didn't see any. Should have listened to Danny. Always listen to Danny. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

My roommate is not a morning person

I'm trekking to a forest with some friends tomorrow. At 6:30am. Here is my roommate expressing his dismay.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Video: Ethiopian New Years

If you couldn’t tell already, Ethiopia tends to do things differently. Just about everything really. New Years, known by the names of Enkutash and Addis Ahmet, is no exception. It usually falls on Sept 11 here.

This holiday—or ba’al—started like Buhe a few weeks earlier: with unrestrained pyromania. “Get up!” was the alarm to my post-slumber nap. “It’s time for lighting the lights!” By lighting, I had known from the previous celebration, my grandfather meant prodding at a highly unstable kerosene stove. By lights, he meant long, haphazardly assembled bundles of sticks called chibo. By get up, he meant “Get your head out of the clouds, I don’t want you tripping over something and burning my damn house down!” Things turned out fine. We built a bonfire in the cobblestone street. My grandfather sang a few songs. The real celebration came in the morning.

After our regular breakfast of thick barley porridge—genfo—my cousins and I left for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the center of town. Here, we nearly lost ourselves in a sea of beautiful white dresses and robes; If not for the bearings provided by the priests’ soothing, monotonous chants and prayers, the experience would have been far to overwhelming for me. I’d been to Ethiopian Orthodox Church before, but not since the local chapter moved far away when I was 6 or so and my family settled on Lutheranism.  The services are simultaneously blissful and stoically sad, inspiring both awe and humbling fear. At least, such is the case for me, a half Ethiopian—kalis—with half an understanding of the culture and half of a half of a half of an understanding of the language.

Later in the evening—you won’t be surprised—my grandparents treated me to a (especially) huge dinner. If you’ve been reading my other entries, you know that they like to show their love with painfully large meals. Now multiply that by ten, many, many times over. Their goat, whom I had befriended as a substitute for my dogs at home, became dinner. I didn’t know that when I started shoveling food down my throat, but I suppose that if anybody had to eat the goat it might as well have been me, his friend. The result—a combination of my physical pain from eating too much meat and the feelings of guild derived from eating one’s essential pet—is that I will be spending a few days eating just vegetables. I’ll hopefully become a vegetarian some day, but it won’t be while I’m in Ethiopia. Grandma and Grandpa would be heartbroken.

Below: Video From Ethio-NYE and Ethio-NY Day

Top 5 Things that Freak Out My Grandparents

I appreciate everything my grandparents do for me, and I’m really not trying to make fun of them. It’s just…If I didn’t laugh, I’d assuredly cry. Here are some things that get their injera in a bundle.

1.      Bare Feat 

I tried walking out of my room the other day without my flip flops. After SCREECHING, my grandmother pushed me right back in. I thought she broke my rib. She can’t be more than 5 feet tall. 

2.      Joining the Military 

My grandparents don’t know that I once interned for a Department of Defense think tank. Nobody tell them! They have no reason whatsoever to believe that I’d enlist. Nevertheless, this does not stop my grandfather from pleading with me, every single day, not to join the Army. He’s convinced that I’m going to be on the frontlines of a major US deployment in Somalia. I just keep nodding my head whenever he brings up the subject. 

3.        When I Don’t Wear a Jacket 

I think this is a pretty common thing with the grandparents. Grandchild doesn’t wear jacket, grandchild gets cold, grandchild dies. It’s science. 

4.      Showers

Grandpa is constantly reminding me of the likelihood that I’ll slip in the shower and split my head open. This actually does happen. That I’ve made it this far in my shower career without dying, he’s convinced, is luck. 

5.      My Cooking

The idea that I don’t have someone in my apartment to cook for me is shocking to my grandparents. They think I’ll starve. I don’t think it’s a gender thing, but I do think it’s a me thing. The only thing I cooked in college was ravioli. My roommate called it the Birhanu Special. I swear I’ve gotten A LOT better since arriving in Ethiopia. I even cook Indian food sometimes with my roommate! (granted I follow her strict instructions...)

Well, that’s all I can come up with now. I’d like to reiterate, I love and appreciate my grandparents and I’m so lucky to have them in this country, let alone on this earth, with me. But seriously, some of this stuff is ridiculous.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Hawassa & Shashamane

The fundamentalist might accuse this place of heresy, of competing with Heaven’s beauty. The more secular man might think this place a hallucination, as reason to get examined at the nearest hospital. Luckily, my spiritual-happy-medium allows me to appreciate this place for what it is: divine yet tangible. A Garden of Eden without the exclusivity. 

Hawassa, by Nastasia

The capital of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, Hawassa deserves all my obnoxiously poetic language and more. Here, mountains of fertile volcanic soil fade into thick clouds, indigo lakes are mirrored by the skies above. When you understand how damp and rainy it is in Addis Ababa—the capital city where I live and work—you’ll give my enthusiasm a pass. 

Hawassa (formerly Awassa), by me
The opportunity to travel to Hawassa came courtesy of my newest flatmate, James.(James asked to be called Jay at the end of his first week here, but I’d already developed a habit. Even relatively new habits die hard with me). James had to check out one of our sub-offices as part of his job, so he brought along Nastasia (the other flatmate) and I for company. We came up with a detailed itinerary for Hawassa, but we count ourselves blessed for completely abandoning it.

Sitting at breakfast with the other members of the Addis trio on our first morning in the Haile Gebre-Selassie resort, I was approached by a foreigner. The tall, gray haired thirty something pointed to my chest. “You went to Northwestern?” he asked. Or maybe it was, "You go to Northwestern?" Regardless, the question did not surprise me. Noticing other Americans at the hotel the previous evening, I had put on a Northwestern sweatshirt in hopes of gaining a new friend. I still count this as a chance encounter; it’s just that the chance was slightly calculated. 

Paul, an alum and professor at the Northwestern law school, exuded super human energy as he explained the work that had brought him to Southern Ethiopia. When he’s not wearing the hat of youngest person ever invited to lecture at the Northwestern University Law School, or of practicing-international business lawyer, Paul is in Ethiopia running the Awassa Children’s Project. This hybrid orphanage-youth center-vocational training institute has been voted Ethiopia’s best NGO by both the federal and regional governments. As Paul enthusiastically touted the successes of his center, my mind went in two directions: either this man is exaggerating out of insecurity, or he has created something truly amazing. When he invited us to the center, our curiosity would not allow us to refuse.

Though nestled in the shadow of the Tabor Mountain, the Awassa Children’s Project is not overshadowed by the Tabor Mountain: I’ve never seen anything like this place. Giving us a thorough tour, our host delivered the rundown on his project; The center is non-adoptive, though it works hard to foster a sense of family among children, staff and volunteers; The center provides vocational training to children who want it, but makes sure that all are given the opportunity to attend college if they so choose; The center eschews institutionalization, fostering integration by requiring children to attend schools in the community; The center fights HIV/AIDS stigma through theater, just one of many ways that all children are made to feel welcome; The center is environmentally sustainable, running on solar energy and growing much of its own food. The children and staff of the Awassa Children’s Project seemed extremely happy. Almost unbelievably so. As I said to Paul, I’d think this place were a cult if not for a policy of secularization (children are encouraged to follow the religion of their families). Regardless, I certainly drank the Kool-Aid. 

Aww yee I found a swing!

Mirroring the energy of their beloved Paul, several children decided to walk us to the top of Tabor Mountain. It’s hard to explain with words what this experience was like for me: what I can say is that there is a reason why dozens of people were meditating, praying, and, presumably, preforming exorcisms on Tabor’s Gethsemane-like summit.  It was exhausting and fulfilling both emotionally and spiritually. It was also exhausting because the children made me climb a tree, and, struggling to climb back down, I started to bake in the sun.

Mt Tabor

After about an hour, Paul took James, Nastasia, and I to meet Daniel, the leader of the Rastas in nearby Shashamane. He moved here from Jamaica in 1975 at the age of 26 after spending years helping fellow believers reach Ethiopia, considered the Promised Land by adherents to the Rasta faith. Since coming to Ethiopia, he’s raised his children to adulthood, founded and mentored a thriving community of Jamaican-Ethiopians, and become fluent in both Amharic and “Jamharic”, a mixture of Patois and Amharic which may or may not be a real thing. Now 63, many outside of Ethiopia believed Daniel to be dead before Paul “rediscovered” him about a month ago. I’m glad he did, because, in line with the novel-theme of the day, Daniel is like nobody I have ever met. His thin, gray dreadlocks cover a mind filled with philosophy, history, and an unparalleled knowledge of Scrabble: when we returned to the hotel, Paul nearly ripped the place apart for getting bested at the game. 

Jay (in red) plays Scrabble with Danny (center right) wile Nastasia (far right) watches

Back at the Haile Gebre-Selassie resort, I spent the night getting to know some of Paul’s friends: donors, partners, and travelers. If the group were any more eclectic, I’d think that I were stuck in a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie: a famous advocate of breastfeeding/ humanitarian featured on the cover of Time Magazine, a cowboy with unparalleled knowledge for agricultural development, a nun with a black belt in Aikaido (specialization in stick and sword, obviously), an up and coming metal musician, a South African Safari guide. Labels don’t do these people justice, but they suit the point that I’m trying to communicate: there’s something really reassuring about knowing that such a diverse range of people care about the same issues that you do, even (no, especially) when they approach these issues in a different way.

Returning to Addis, we were lucky enough to host the cowboy, JD, and the nun, Sister Donna, for the night. Donna gave us a demonstration in martial arts, and JD schooled us on country music on the ride back. The weekend ended just as it was meant to: dinner, conversation, time with new friends. JD and the Sister left early in the morning. I didn’t get to say goodbye. That’s okay. I’ll visit them again soon. It’s nice to get out of the city.

Top of Tabor

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Only Song That Matters

There is not an artist in all of America who is as well loved as Teddy Afro is in Ethiopia. Here's a song off of his new album, Tikur Sew (Black Man). The album is a tribute to Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II, the man who fought off Italian colonizers in 1896 and cemented the country's status as the only truly non-colonized country in Africa.

Reggae: A Love Story

Ethiopia’s passionate love affair with reggae can be traced to the 1960s. Reggae’s Rastafarian themes glorified Ethiopia as the divinely-promised Zion, and her Emperor Haile Selassie (Birth name Ras Tafari Mekkonen) as God incarnate. It’s really easy to fall in love with someone who has such a high opinion of you. Plus, the music wasn’t half bad. And so the courtship began.

Flash-forward to July 7, 2012 and the love affair with reggae, or at least its modern dance hall-influenced equivalent, has only intensified. This is the day I join several thousand Ethiopians at the nearby Laphto Mall for the debut concert of Jah Lude, the country’s newest reggae star. Thanks to ABC Trading for hosting this wonderful concert. Also, thanks to ABC Trading for letting the audience know that the concert was hosted by ABC Trading some fifteen times. I kept nearly forgetting.

My friends and I wanted to take a jump-in-the fire approach in terms of getting acclimated to Ethiopian culture, and I can’t think of a more effective means of doing so. To our satisfaction, the show was pretty incredible. The sound system was decent and, except for all of the thieves, the audience was really good. If I could ask one important thing of concert organizers, it would be to eliminate the half hour DJ sets between each act. That way, the star attraction can go on before well past midnight. Oh, and also cut the opener. She was terrible. Just because she’s a cast member on Big Brother Africa doesn’t mean she can sing. Actually, as a rule of thumb, reality stars are usually pretty awful singers. Their only talents are finding ways to get paid to drink copious amounts of alcohol and getting into staged fights.
I wish I could have stayed for all of Jah Lude, but, as I mentioned, it was just too darn late by the time he went on. I got my money’s worth, as there were four other acts, plus the aforementioned myriad DJs. The music was a lot different from the Ethiopian jazz and traditonal styles that I'm used to. Older Ethiopian music is my life blood, but it was a breath of fresh air to hear sounds that defied the stoic, beautifuly sad images of Ethiopian culture in general. For an example of the cult of mystery that surrounds traditional Ethiopian art, follow this link to hear a song by recently deceased national treasure Tilahun Gesesse.

Apart from Jah Lude, highlights of the evening were Dawit Melesse (a more traditional sax-loving Ethiopian Pop star) and Haile Roots (A reggae artist, if his name didn’t betray that fact already). Here's a song from Haile, enjoy!

P34cE & L0v3