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.

Notes:

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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About copelaf

photographer, writer, engineer, eater, traveler, and - occasionally - a thinker.
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4 Responses to Two Years, Endless Challenges, Boundless Growth

  1. madwil24 says:

    You need a warning label on this stuff, it made me tear up before 8am. Truly a great post, thank you for sharing. Very honest and very appreciated.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. jake says:

    ya freak, good job bro.

  3. Dawn Whipp says:

    Thank you, Forrest, for all of these posts, for sharing your experiences there in Abi Adi. What an incredible gift you have made to those of us at home with your writing and your pictures. Good luck to you.

  4. zeraburuk says:

    Hello there,

    Thank you for posting this very insightful blog.

    I believe I have understood what you tried to convey.

    When our eyes are opened to see what others have not seen, there is no way of reverting to the previous state.

    You have seen.

    Best wishes

    Zeraburuk

    Addis Ababa

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