New Blog!

Hello everyone.  There will be NO MORE POSTS on this blog.  My new blog is here:

Check it out for more stories about Ethiopia.  But I hope to also write about other subjects.  I felt like this blog, Tales from the Big Country, was too specific and limiting.  Plus I don’t live in Abi Adi “the big country” anymore!

I hope you continue to follow my new blog.  Thanks for reading and thanks for all the comments and support over the past 2 years.  Cheers!


February 7, 2015

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Two Years, Endless Challenges, Boundless Growth

This will be my last post on this blog.  I will continue blogging, but now it’s time to lay this one to rest since it embodies my Peace Corps Service in Abi Adi, Tigray, Ethiopia where I lived for 22 months as a Community Health Volunteer.

It’s been a wild ride that included some of the most challenging and some of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  Here are few of them:

  • I stared at the wall for countless hours in the local health office feeling ineffective at work.
  • I met some great people.
  • I felt sick to my stomach with worry when I found myself 15km outside of town at sunset after a dinner invitation in the countryside didn’t go so well.
  • I shat my pants in a disgusting blaze of fury.
  • I wasted a lot of time.
  • I comforted my friends who were driven to tears at times in their service.
  • I cried during my own service, frustrated by seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
  • I ran. a lot.
  • I watched friends, neighbor kids, and students grow and mature.
  • I explored slot canyons, mountains, and ancient churches born from solid rock in Tigray.
  • I tried and usually failed to speak Tigrigna.
  • I engaged in countless small talk discussions in Tigrigna with surprised farmers while sharing local booze, coffee, or food.
  • I was often frustrated by the lack of substantive discussions – due to language barriers.
  • I fell in and out of love with a beautiful woman.
  • I learned and loved the local dances.
  • I had plenty of time alone with my thoughts.
  • I shared meals.
  • I cooked too many meals of bachelor chow, mush, or fried potatoes by myself at home.
  • I felt lonelier and more isolated than I’ve ever felt before.
  • I saw several of my friends become parents for the first time.
  • I intervened in my neighbor’s sloppy domestic disputes.
  • I felt helpless and worthless as a friend and a son while people near and dear to me suffered through pain, loss, and depression at home.
  • I missed weddings, funerals, and graduations for important people in my life.
  • I befriended and mentored so many optimistic, happy, and visionary youth who continue to see the best things in life despite having been dealt a difficult hand.
  • I learned a lot about myself.
  • I tried!

My Peace Corps service was a mixed bag of emotions, experiences, and interactions.  Not all of it was good, but I loved it.  Here’s two of the reasons why:

Amaniel was my Tigrigna tutor.  He was 18 years old and was at the top of his 9th grade class.  He would come over twice a week and help me decipher the language.  One time he was late for our meeting and when I asked why he said that he set his phone’s clock by the call to prayer from the local mosque and was surprised that it wasn’t accurate.  But usually he was right on time.

We would struggle together for an hour in a formal lesson where he would tell me that two or three Tigrigna words meant something like, “She has a straight figure and all eyes will watch her.”  It wasn’t very productive for me but I would also answer questions to feed Amaniel’s voracious appetite for English vocabulary.  We both learned.

I went over to his house a few times.  His family lived in the countryside, too far for him to commute to school in Abi Adi, so he lived with his brother and grandma in town in a traditional one hundred year old house which was built from stones and ancient timbers that came from massive trees no longer growing in the region.  His grandma, a tough and impossibly shriveled old woman, would insist, with classic Tembien pride, that I be fed first despite her own legendary age.  One time we ate bone soup that Amaniel cooked earlier and sipped local ouzo from tiny shotglasses in the humble room.  Amaniel cared for his grandma, maintained the house, taught me Tigrigna, went to school, pulled all-nighters regularly to study, scored at the top of his class, and had an unending energy to do more.

Amaniel and I sharing some of the local drink on my last day in town.

Amaniel and I sharing some of the local drink on my last day in town.

Bright was another amazing student.  She came to our Peace Corps Summer Camp GLOW in Mekele in 2013.  In her application for the camp she wrote, “One thing, I am bitterly bothered on how to vanish HIV/AIDS from the surface of the world […] Therefore I confidently wish to be offered the opportunity and enjoy my interest.”  She was 14 at the time.  The summer camp was great and Bright proved to be an ideal camper: willing to participate, listen, learn, and have fun!

The next year we invited her back as a junior counselor.  This can be risky because some students don’t respond well to the added responsibility, but Bright thrived.  She was invaluable in supporting the counselors, and successfully led a team of 7 other young ladies.  The campers loved her.  The staff loved her.  At the end of the week the camp staff, PCVs and Ethiopian Counterparts, decided that Bright deserved the Outstanding Junior Counselor award for her leadership, attitude, and cooperation.  After camp her Dad, a smart, progressive, educator at the local college, sent me a text: “Thank u 4 ur extraordinary assist, care & recognition to my daughter.”

Unfortunately outside of camp we didn’t interact much.  But during the Ashenda holiday I went over to Bright’s family’s house for a holiday meal with 2 other PCVs.  Bright had cooked a huge feast for us.  While talking and eating we found out that Bright’s Dad made her write an essay summarizing Camp GLOW.  In it she thanked her mentors, “The one who smartly led me this year was Shayna.  Yet, in the previous year, Jessi was my team leader.  I love and appreciate both my leaders.  This is because they have shown me good relationship and made me develop confidence.”  She continued to summarize the camp and then concluded, “As far as my life is concerned, I have not enjoyed any other program like Camp GLOW.  I would like to promise to teach my community in which I live about HIV/AIDS, hygiene, Malaria, Contraceptive Methods and Womb Protection.”

Bright and I pose in our Ashenda clothes

Bright and I pose in our Ashenda clothes

Both of these students never asked me for anything other than friendship and ideas.  I wish these kids, and all the others like them, understood how profoundly they impacted my time in Abi Adi; they made the hardships, the bad days, and the frustrations worth it and continue to inspire me today.

2 or 3 years ago when I considered what I would be doing in the Peace Corps, I believed I would be working as a change-maker in the local government office, interacting with other administrators and leaders.  This changed after working with friendly but lost administrators who would constantly push the buck to the next guy and make excuses and say later, later, later, next semester, next year, when the budget comes.

After 22 months I learned that change comes not from me, but from the optimistic teenagers who would come to my language class day after day, despite sucking at English.  Change comes from the People Living With HIV group who listen to new ideas without the promise of sodas or per diem.  Change comes from the farmer who is willing to try new methods.  Change comes from our summer camp students who learned to lead.

I am thankful for my experience in Abi Adi, the good and the bad, and I am thankful for the Peace Corps for making this possible.  I truly believe in the power of this organization.  It connects people born 8,000 miles away.  It molds Americans into world citizens and allows these citizens to learn from different cultures and people.  In a world full of million dollar aid projects, disassociated funding sources, and mercurial politics, we fill a unique niche in US foreign policy.  With an astonishingly small budget, the US Peace Corps builds personal connections around the world every day.  What other organization can say their mission statement is to “promote peace and world friendship”?

220,000 American Volunteers, including my father, came before me and thousands more will follow…

I would like to conclude with a few statements.  These were read to us by the PC Staff at our Close of Service Conference.  It was an emotional moment of closure for this incredible experience.

  • Thank you for reaching, squishing, and stretching, often more than you ever thought you could.
  • Thank you for staying and struggling, when the road was almost too sandy or muddy or steep, and the rainy season was almost too wet.
  • Thank you for being open to the beauty of living with and accepting the warmth of the host families.
  • Thank you for empowering other to believe in themselves.
  • Thank you for your piece in the puzzle of connectedness.
  • Thank you for helping a child start on a road of possibility, or helping a woman to stand a little taller, or helping a teen boy value his ability to live a healthier life.
  • Thank you for your openness to live as the majority of the people in the world live.
  • Thank you to your families back at home in the States for sharing you with us!
  • Thank you for understanding and adapting to the Ethiopian culture, language, and lifestyle.
  • Thank you for being accepting and for taking the time to care.
  • Thank you for opening your hearts to make new Ethiopian friends.
  • Thank you for giving yourself and for making Ethiopia your home.

I like how these statements are not absolute.  Kids would continue to be educated without the Peace Corps.  People would continue to improve their lives without the Peace Corps.   We are just part of the puzzle –  one of the many pieces.


The title of this post came from an activity we did at our Close of Service conference called 6 word memoirs.  It was a time to reflect on how we felt over the past 2 years.  My other favorites were: “What an interesting fucking experience huh?” and “New life, new challenges, new me” and “Ethiopia: thousand piece puzzle, some invisible”

For more thoughts on finishing Peace Corps Service, please read these wonderful stories from ShaynaLaura, and Hannah.

My group at the Close of Service Conference.  Group 8: Oct 2012 to Dec 2014

My group at the Close of Service Conference. Group 8: Oct 2012 to Dec 2014

Abi Adi, Tigray, Ethiopia on one of my last days

Abi Adi, Tigray, Ethiopia on one of my last days

Me and my buddy Gere drinking local "beer"

Me and my buddy Gere drinking local “beer”

Hanging out with Getch and his extended family

Hanging out with Getch and his extended family

Doing a little dancing during Ashenda 2014

Doing a little dancing during Ashenda 2014

Goodbye program in Abi Adi with some friends

My goodbye program in Abi Adi with some friends

10Q Abi Adi!!!

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Another Tigray Trek?

WHAT?!  You did another Tigray Trek?   Yes we did.  This year it was bigger and better.  We had around 20 Peace Corps Volunteers participating as core runners or on the support crew that went 242 km from Atsbi to Korem, Tigray over 7 days.  Additionally we enlisted PCVs along the way to help coordinate and organize educational events in all 8 towns we stopped in.  We also had a few Ethiopians who ran with us the whole way, and many more who participated in various sections of the run.

I ran for 3 days (doing about 100km) before my Plantar Fasciitis came back.  This year I recognized the problem and knew not to push it.  As I said before, it’s not worth compromising my only reliable form of transportation available to me as a PCV in Ethiopia. I tried walking but after a 7km  that became painful too so I spent the last day taking pictures and cheering on our runners.

I’m glad I didn’t hurt myself (like I did last year) but am still disappointed that I couldn’t run for more of the Trek.  I kept thinking about what I was doing wrong, how my stride could change, or how I didn’t do enough training before the Trek.  I was trying to figure out why my body wasn’t able to run for 40km a day, day after day.  And then I realized that it’s just not a good idea.  I don’t think I’ll be able to ever run 7 marathons in 7 consecutive days.  I love running, but come on, this is a bit ridiculous!  But that’s what we do as PCVs in Ethiopia.  What isn’t ridiculous these days?

At the end of the day, the team made it.  I’m proud, and a bit jealous, of the three PCVs who were able to run the entire route (Hannah, Matt, and Sally).  Despite my own athletic shortcomings I still enjoyed the Trek: I enjoyed the comradery, the interactions with kids along the way, the educational sessions in each town, the beautiful scenery in the mountains of Tigray, and the feeling of accomplishment after our team finally crossed the finish line in Korem.

Here are a few pictures from this year’s Tigray Trek.  And read more about last year’s trek here.

Arthur posing in the epic morning light of the Raya Mountains

Arthur posing in the epic morning light of the Raya Mountains.

2014 09 16 Edit_3

Jaime running in the early morning light near Qwiha.

Matt beasting on some hills near Korem

Matt beasting on some hills near Korem.

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Ashenda 2014!

The girls will find you…it’s only a matter of time.  Every spring groups of girls get together and beautify themselves with new dresses, fancy hairdos, and jewelry.  Then they take to the streets with a hand drum for three crazy days looking for men.  They form a big group around the men and dance and sing in order to solicit donations from the guy.  It’s kind of like Halloween Trick-or-Treating, but they won’t let you leave without paying.  It’s fine as long as you are not in a hurry and have lots of small bills to give out.  But still, the drum beats echoing around Abi Adi instills a bit of fear in all of us.  I’ll peek around the next corner to make sure all is clear before walking down a street.

Ashenda is a beautiful holiday full of dancing, drinking, eating, and watching the roaming groups of beautiful women in the streets.  For more history and a better explanation of the holiday check out my blog entry from last year.  But, last year I didn’t bring out my big camera.  This year I did.  Here are some photos:

Ashenda dancers take to the streets for the main event on the first day of Ashenda in Abi Adi

Ashenda dancers take to the streets for the main event on the first day of Ashenda in Abi Adi

Dancing in Ashenda

Dancing in Ashenda

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YSEL Ethiopia 2014 Summer Camp

I recently wrote about the transformative effect of youth summer camps in Ethiopia while describing Mekele Camp GLOW 2014.  As foreigners we are able to synthesize a little piece of America here in Ethiopia for a week or two at these summer camps; there are rules, people speak English, punctuality reigns, and I understand what’s going on most of the time.  This contrasts with my normal life here in Ethiopia where I’m never quite sure what’s happening as I negotiate this mysterious country.

I just attended the Youth Solidarity and English Language (YSEL) summer camp for a few days in Debre Zeyit and was blown away by how American this camp was.  This camp transformed a little piece of Ethiopia into a real American summer camp.  The camp is held on a beautiful compound which had nice dorm rooms, excellent food, friendly staff, immaculate landscaping, and even a functional computer lab.  However what really made this feel so American was the English only rule: All students must speak English, ALL THE TIME.  This means I could once again eavesdrop on student conversations, classes didn’t waste time with translations, and I had to bite my tongue over and over again when I instinctively responded in Amharic or Tigrigna.  I felt American again.

The reason for this English only rule is so students improve their English language abilities, obviously, but also because English may be their best form of communication.  Ethiopia is home to more than 80 local languages and although Amharic is the official language, many people don’t speak it well.  All of the 44 students attending the YSEL summer camp were interviewed for their English abilities and are pretty impressive English speakers.  Since these students come from all 11 different regions in Ethiopia, and represent a huge variety of peoples and cultures, it makes as much sense to use English as the lingua franca as using Amharic.

The 2014 YSEL-Ethiopia Crew

The 2014 YSEL-Ethiopia Crew

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Bunna in Ethiopia

We couldn’t find any coffee to buy in the town of Chiri which is located in the highland Kaffa Zone of Southwestern Ethiopia.  This region is the birthplace of coffea.arabica; all arabica coffee cultivated in the world originated from the “mother coffee” trees found in the Kaffa zone here in Ethiopia.  Therefore it surprised me that they didn’t have any beans for sale in the little store we were looking in.  They had other dried goods like rice, flour, lentils, and pasta, but they didn’t have any coffee (bunna as it’s called in Amharic or buno as it’s called in the local language, Kaffinoonoo).  Then we realized the reason why we couldn’t find it; you would have to be an idiot to buy what grows like a weed in the forest, what shoots up against traditional thatched huts everywhere, and surrounds most fields of corn and ensete (false banana trees).  Coffee is everywhere here, you just need to pick it.

Kaffa Zone near Chiri - Ethiopia - The birthplace of coffee

Farms around the Kaffa Zone near Chiri – Ethiopia – The birthplace of coffee.

Unripe coffee beans in Bonga, Ethiopia

Unripe coffee beans in Bonga, Ethiopia

Luckily we knew a family who had picked plenty of bunna.  I was visiting my friend and fellow health PCV Todd in his site Chiri where he introduced me to his good friend Getatchew and his family.  Getatchew’s family had picked an enormous amount of red coffee “cherries” during the last harvest and had dried and stored them to be sold at market.  We went over to their house to drink some bunna and asked if I could buy some.   We agreed on 20 birr per kilo of un-shelled raw bunna.

Zenebech, Getatchew's mom, making coffee in her home

Zenebech, Getatchew’s mom, making coffee in her home

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My Friend Mustafa

“Welcome my friend Mr. Forrest, the most famous man!”

This is a typical greeting from my friend Mustafa whenever I go to visit him in his shop.  Mustafa is a tailor in Abi Adi and his little shop occupies a prime piece of real estate in town, on the way to everything.  It’s impossible for me to walk by and not stop to chat.  Even if I’m in a hurry I still have to stop and at least say hello.  In fact, it’s best to avoid his street if that’s the case since it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll be invited in for some tea.

Mr. Mustafa works on shortening some pants.

Mr. Mustafa works on shortening some pants.

Mustafa saw me pass by his shop as I wandered around town looking like a confused newcomer during my first few weeks in Abi Adi.  He promptly invited me in for tea and conversation.  He is a very social person and there is almost always a guy or two sitting in his bare little shop passing the time with him.  We all watch Mustafa work, fascinated by his slow but deliberate alterations.  I call him the doctor of clothes: a surgeon who re-hems shirts, shortens trouser legs, or adds badly needed patches to the seat of some worn out jeans.  The alterations are usually not taxing enough to draw his attention too far away from the conversation at hand.

We’ve discussed all sorts of things over the past year and a half but language comes up often.  He speaks Tigrigna, Amharic, Arabic, and English so I taught him a new word: Polyglot – one who speaks many languages.  His attempt at the pronunciation is hilarious for an already strange word.  To pass the time Mustafa tries to engage in English conversations with everyone including his old Muslim friends who don’t speak any English; it’s a one-way conversation for sure.  I got him an Oxford Dictionary and in turn he gives me Tigrigna words to fill up my own little black notebook that he titled Forrest’s Oxford.

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