My Ethiopian Compound

I recently left my host family in Asella Ethiopia to begin my life as a Peace Corps volunteer.  The 10 weeks of Pre-Service Training I just completed was an amazing experience and now that I’m out on my own, setting my own agenda, I have a bit of time for reflection.  I wanted to summarize a few experiences during my stay at my host family’s home and decided to focus it through the lens of “the compound”.  Almost every home in an Ethiopian town is inside a compound.  Every compound is surrounded by tall walls and metal gates and is home to people, animals, gardens, and chickens.  Everything happens in the compound here.  Everything.

A few weeks ago as I was washing my clothes in a bucket in the compound, I spilled some soapy water on the ground and watched it trickle into the dirt leaving a film of residue from the soap behind.  I just sat there, actually I was squatting on some rocks, and stared at the hardpan dirt and thought of all the activity that has happened on this small piece of earth.  Befkadu Abakemaw’s family compound has seen it all and I was lucky enough to witness some of it.


Birkinesh and Wogany.  The family has one big milk cow named Birkinesh.  She is an imported “ferenji” dairy cow, a breed not common in Ethiopia, and is currently pregnant.  Despite her pregnancy, she still produces milk, only a few liters a day, which is collected exclusively by Wogany, my host brother.  He loves Birkinesh and she loves him.  He is responsible for feeding, watering, milking and comforting her.  She loves it when he scratches her enormous head right between the horns on her forehead.  She has a few small stalls in the back of the compound and her head is the first thing you see when you look down the wall upon entering the compound.  She’s always there, tied up.  Wogany milks her when she is eating.  First he mixes a big batch of watery cow chow in an old converted truck tire and puts it in front of her.  As she’s eating, he sneaks behind her and ties her hind legs to a post to avoid being crushed on accident.  He is so small compared to her enormous pregnant body.  Next he washes the utters and his hands with water from a pitcher that he then proceeds to fill with milk, one squirt at a time.  She is happy to eat and doesn’t mind.  When finished, Wogany unties her and lets her continue to eat while he brings the milk inside to be boiled or sold to a neighbor.  Sometimes Birkinesh will get upset and will make noises that I’ve never heard a cow make; imagine a very angry cow moo shifted up a few octaves.  Wogany is always close by for a comforting petting.  Birkinesh never leaves the compound.


Wogany and Birkinesh – Friends for life

Slaughter.  The sheep kept bucking at the legs of my host father, Gashe, as he bent over to tie the hoofs of the doomed animal.  The harmless head butts did little to slow down the inevitable for the sheep.  Once Gashe had all four legs tied together he knocked the sheep onto its side.  My host brother, Wogany, put his knees on incapacitated sheep’s side to keep it still as he handed Gashe a small knife.  Without hesitation, Gashe worked the knife back and forth through the throat of the sheep until it hit the spinal column.  Wogany kept his grip as the blood drained into a small plastic basin.  Some of the blood spilled too.  After the sheep’s heart stopped beating, Wogany let go of the sheep.  There were a few convulsions in the animal’s legs and the remaining blood spilled onto the compound dirt.  The animal was then strung up on a fence post for skinning and butchering leaving behind the spilled blood.  After the blood coagulated, the chickens pecked it up and gobbled it down, dirt and all.  Nothing goes to waste and the scene of the slaughter was completely cleaned and unidentifiable within a matter of hours.  Just another place to do your laundry.


The sheep – Actually this is a goat from another town…I didn’t bring out the camera on the slaughtering day. you’re welcome.

Washing and drying.  Every Sunday I wash my clothing in the compound.  It takes a while since I haven’t developed the proper local technique.  I’ve been shown several times how to do it the right way by my host siblings and a few neighbors.  Maybe I’m lazy or maybe my hands just don’t have the Ethiopian coordination to do it right, but I figure the main point is to agitate the clothes however you can.  Anyway, every Sunday I bring out my buckets and my bar of laundry soap and squat down on some rocks, using a stack of old tires as the table for my washing basin.  An hour or two later, and my clothes are clean and wet.  I hang them above the compound dirt on one of the many clothes lines and leave them.  I usually come back and find that the incessant afternoon winds of Asella have blown at least one item off the line and onto the dirt ground.  I brush it off again.  No problem.

Hop Scotch.  Abdisa is about 7 years old and lives with his grandmother (I think) named Moole.  Kids here don’t have toys and instead improvise games that require little or no material.  One of the favorites is hop scotch and variations of it.  Abdisa, or one of his friends from the neighborhood, will etch a few lines into the hard packed dirt on the ground of the compound and then everyone will take turns tossing a pebble into a square and jumping to it.

In addition to hopscotch there is also a boot camp type game where you set half a dozen rocks about one meter apart from each other in a straight line.  You hop on one leg between the rocks back and forth, back and forth, counting up how many times you can make it from end to end.  It’s about as basic a game as you can imagine, but the kids love it, especially when I try it and make a complete fool of myself.


Abdisa (left), Moole (middle), and Yohannes (right) pose in the compound before milling some grain.

Tibbs cook off.   I arrived home after eating Thankgsiving dinner at the local hotel with my fellow Peace Corps Trainee friends to find a big metal plate in the middle of the compound.  It was about the size of a manhole cover and had short little legs about 8 inches high propping it up into a squat round table.  I wasn’t sure what it was for since I had never seen it before and continued to walk past it.  As I entered the house through the kitchen door, I noticed an enormous pile of animal parts in a bowl; something was slaughtered and butchered recently.  I found out later it was a sheep that Gashe butchered earlier in the day.  My host mother, Ataytay, and the girls were cutting the big pieces into bite sized bits.  Back outside next to the metal plate, Mimi was stating a small wood fire.

This is pretty typical of my experiences in the house…. I see many clues but usually don’t really know what’s going on until it happens.  Then it happened, and all the pieces came together.  Ataytay brought out the huge bowl of sheep parts and moved the metal plate over the fire which had since grown into a very hot fire.  It was a tibbs roast!  Once the fire had sufficiently heated the plate, Ataytay added all the meat at once into a sizzling heap of flesh.  She stirred the meat with a wicked looking shank of a knife, the preferred style here, and kept the fire blazing by adding more wood.  I could see bone, meat, fat, intestines, and even the teeth on the jaw bone in the fire light.  Finally she explained what she was doing and why we were cooking this feast tonight.  Their daughter was leaving the country to go work in Saudi Arabia, and the family was sending her off with an epic barbeque, Ethiopian style of course.  Ataytay continued to work the meat pile with the knife, ensuring every piece came into contact with the searing metal.  Eventually she added oil, onion, peppers, and spices.  A very basic recipe proven through years of practice; it’s not what you add, it’s how you add it…and when.  Finally, the fire died down a bit and the meat was covered with a big plate.  The remaining heat from the fire continued to cook the pile, allowing the pieces of fat to melt and deep fry all the other pieces into crispy delicousness.

Once the meat was finished, the neightbors were invited to share the feast and heaps of rolled injera bread were brought out.  I held out my plate for my serving, hoping that the jawbone and big pieces of fat would find their way onto other plates.  Luckily they did.  The meat was delicious as we shared the company of family, friends, and neighbors in the cool Ethiopian night in the family compound.  Even the cat got some.


Ataytay stirs the tibbs with her wicked knife


The wicked knife. and some onion.

Gambling, Arake and the Fellas.  One night my family invited all the neighborhood guys for an outdoor game of cards in the compound.  All the guys sat around a table and drank tea while they played cards.  The only problem was that there were not enough openings for everyone to play despite combining multiple decks.  Therefore the older guys got to play while the younger men sat around and chatted and drank more tea.  I have no idea what the game was and couldn’t keep track of it.  All the guys would throw down cards, sometimes with great conviction, in a seemingly random order while another dude sat on the side with a pen and paper keeping score.  The score is important since money is on the line – a little neighborhood gambling.  The guys grumbled, teased, and cheered as I looked on.  This one guy kept spitting on his fingers to get a better grip on the cards.  Not like a big spit, just little spits like you do when spitting watermelon seeds.  It was almost like an obsessive compulsive tick, or maybe it was just for good luck.  Then one guy showed up with a bottle of Arake, the local hard alcohol, and small glasses were brought out for the most important members of the card playing crew.  Arake is strong and tough and reminds me of Tequila with much more bad flavors.  The guys love it and sipped their little cups for the duration of the game that continued into the night.

Man in the Middle.  Ethiopian guys love football.  Almost every bus or truck on the road has a sticker from some English Premiere League team.  Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams and the passion for the sport originates in the compound.  Every boy participates in pickup games of football in the compound using whatever they can as a ball.  Often it is old socks or other rags wrapped around compacted plastic bags then sown up with twine.  You will often see a boy walking around with some crude needle and thread working on his latest iteration of the soccer ball.  Wogany had several of these balls and we spent many evenings playing football games in the compound dirt. 

The best game is man in the middle.  You need at least 3 people, one of whom is the man in the middle.  The others try to pass the ball to each other without letting the man in the middle touch it.  If the man in the middle touches it, then the man in the middle is no longer “it” and is replaced by the one who gave up possession.  If you are feeling bold you can attempt to kick it between the legs of the man in the middle.  If you succeed then you will get a point and the man in the middle will now have to touch the ball two times before he can leave the middle.  These kids play the game in their sandals and regularly take a second to adjust or repair a loose strap.  Wogany has some pretty fancy footwork too, developed through many many games of man in the middle with the neighbors in the dirt. 


Wogany (in the back) and the neighborhood boys with their homemade football.

Chicken habitat.  Chickens roam freely around the compound.  We had laying hens for eggs as well as breeding chickens.  Sometimes the roosters would get confused when faced with their own reflection in the glass door and would peck at the glass to fight the new mysterious rooster they just found.  Sometimes we would be sitting in the house and would hear a knocking at the door.  When I went to answer it all I found was an angry and confused rooster.  The good thing is that the chickens clean up all the scraps that find their way to the ground in the compound.  They also help control bug problems since they’ll eat anything that moves and fits inside their beak.

The compound serves numerous purposes, practical, recreational, and social.  The dog lives there.  The cow lives there.  The cat and her new kitten.  The chickens.  The ancient jalopy pickup truck.  And the people.   I cannot thank my host family in Asella enough for showing me what a real Ethiopian compound is all about.  Which is of course, everything.


Gashe, Forrest, and Ataytay in front of the garden


About copelaf

photographer, writer, engineer, eater, traveler, and - occasionally - a thinker.
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4 Responses to My Ethiopian Compound

  1. Pingback: Two Years, Endless Challenges, Boundless Growth | Tales From The Big Country

  2. Ruth says:

    I love the way you describe everything from dulet to 3man game. Thank you for writing about your experience in Ethiopia. I am Ethiopian and from Abi Adi residing in u.s.a

  3. Pingback: Pre-Service Training! | Forrest Copeland

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