Mekele Camp GLOW 2014

I just worked with 13 other Peace Corps Volunteers and 6 Ethiopian counterparts to conduct the second annual Mekele Camp GLOW.  Camp GLOW, which stands for Girls Leading Our World, is an international Peace Corps project focused on teaching youth about leadership, gender equality, and health (malaria, HIV/AIDS, hygiene and sanitation).  This year’s Mekele Camp Glow brought together 44 students, age 13 to 16, from seven different towns in Tigray to discuss how they can make changes in their communities and lead Ethiopia forward as the next generation of leaders.

We built off the successes of last year’s camp which you can read about on my blog.

Here are some anecdotes from our recent summer camp followed by some more of my favorite pictures.  Warning: my rose-tinted glasses are still on.  I’m sure the skeptical and jaded Forrest will be back for the next post…

Mekele Camp GLOW 2014

Mekele Camp GLOW 2014

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Go Play Outside

“You don’t have a whipping holiday in America?” asked my friend.

No not really, although we do blow things up on the 4th of July.  So while Americans blow stuff up today, boys in Abi Adi are kicking this whipping season off to a thunderous start.  Boys all over town are weaving their own custom whips out of tree bark and other odds and ends so that they can participate in the culminating festivities of Hawerya, which falls on July 12th this year.  All the boys will congregate on one of the cliffs near Abi Adi to joke and whip the air at each other.  They don’t actually hit each other, but it’s still pretty startling to hear the cracking whips of an entire town’s youth.

A boy uses a homemade whip in the Simian Mountains

A boy uses a homemade whip in the Simian Mountains

This is just one example of a pastime for a kid in Abi Adi.  While kids here don’t have access to many of the organized sports, clubs, music, art, mass produced toys, and other novelties of the developed world, they still know how to have fun with the resources at hand.  Over the past year and half I’ve observed quite a few different pastimes and so here’s a list of some of them.

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Grassroot Soccer SKILLZ!

Peace Corps Volunteers struggle with sustainability.  Just like anyone working in the ‘development’ field, I question the work I am doing.  However, since I’m a bottom-of-the-food-chain volunteer who is more or less (ir)responsible for planning my own projects, I question them on a personal level, daily.   What happens to this or that project when I leave?  Have I done anything worthwhile here?  Is this project sustainable?  Is this the right thing to be doing?

Since the first week of Pre-Service Training we were grilled with the idea sustainability.  We sat through dry sessions about the Peace Corps’ role in development.  We talked about all the buzzwords in the field and how the Peace Corps has put its own unique spin on each one of them.  In short, the Peace Corps’ approach to development is “helping people develop the capacity to improve their own lives.”  The Peace Corps is focused on building people, not things.

So how does one go about building this illusive capacity, especially when we don’t have a carrot or a stick – no budget or authority?  Many Volunteers, myself included, will tell you that you don’t…at least not very often.  The actual magical moment of capacity building is difficult to measure, is difficult to see, and is often too slow to perceive.

I’ve worked on a variety of projects over the past year and a half: some tiny and insignificant, some fun and rewarding, and some completely and blatantly unsustainable. The whole time I was thinking about sustainability and capacity building.  I hit my head on the wall about a year ago and angrily scrawled out my frustrations in my journal.

“A guy in my office just told me that we aren’t supposed to do anything.  He says we are supposed to introduce ideas and then monitor them but we need to leave the implementation up to the host organization.  Yeah right!  I see how that is supposed to promote sustainability, but if that’s all you do, then nothing’s going to happen.  I’m tired of passing the buck on to the next guy who then doesn’t do shit with it.  I know we are supposed to be in management positions, but if you have no real authority you cannot take this type of approach!  No one will do anything if there are no consequences (positive or negative).  It’s time for me to step up and do something instead of just delegating things that no one is actually going to execute. F*** me…”  – Aug. 12 2013

I found myself stuck in the doldrums of middle management visiting other offices trying to make other civil servants do things.  It didn’t work.  When asked to describe my PC service in one word at a conference, I wrote impotent.

But things changed.  This year I’ve been working with youth.  I teach a few nights a week at an extracurricular English language school and I’m also working with the Grassroot Soccer program.

PCVs leading a GRS SKILLZ Cheer during the 2013 Tigray Trek.

PCVs leading a GRS SKILLZ Cheer during the 2013 Tigray Trek.

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The Mekele Market – In Pictures

The Mekele market is huge and confusing and strange.  It’s a bustling sprawl of everything imaginable;   everything is negotiable and nothing has a price tag.  Therefore a few weeks ago I went into the labyrinth with Hannah, a pen and paper (for mapping), and my camera.  It was a Monday, the designated market day, so there were lots of people from out of town there to buy and sell chickens, honey, strange spices, and everything in between.  Here are the final results from our morning of exploration:

Here is the map I made after our visit.  The market is too diverse to really map, so this is just a general guide.  Click for full resolution.

Here is the map I made after our visit. The market is too diverse to really map, so this is just a general guide. Click for full resolution.

One of the cotton sellers lined up along the southern road.

One of the cotton sellers lined up along the southern road.

Two more cotton sellers chatting in the morning.

Two more cotton sellers chatting in the morning.

Every seller brings one little bag of handspun cotton.  Women spin these by hand during the week during any downtime they might have then bring their work to the market where it's bought up by middlemen like this guy.

Every seller brings one little bag of handspun cotton. Women spin these by hand during the week during any downtime they might have then bring their work to the market where it’s bought up by middlemen like this guy.

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The Ultimate Taper

I felt terrible on Wednesday last week.   I had another type of bacterial infection in my GI.  For me these happen every few months and, according to our PC doctor, affect 70% of volunteers worldwide, although I would have guessed it closer to 100%.  In this publicly available blog, I’ll spare you the details, but for those of you who know me better, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to tell you all about my darkest, grossest, and humiliating shitting experiences later when I can tell you in person.  I don’t know, but shit stories seem like something to share over beers, not post on this blog.   What you need to know is that I spent a few days holed up in my house, eating bananas and biscuits, and never straying far from the shint bet (toilet).  I even got seriously dehydrated, a first for me; I mean I’ve read about dehydration from diarrhea, but never experienced it before.  So that sucked.  To fight a bacterial infection you can try to wait it out or take an antibiotic.   I tried to wait, unsuccessfully for 3 days and then took the first dose of cippro.  Within hours the medicine was killing things inside of me and my stomach sounded like a sloppy battlefield where microbes were dying by the millions.

I woke up the next day, feeling slightly better, and good enough to brave a bus trip to Mekele and then to Sinkata (a total of about 5 hours).  You see, I had a half marathon to run the next day.

I have been running a lot in the mornings to prepare for the annual Hawassa Half Marathon.   I ran it last year and it was a lot of fun to get together with other volunteers from around Ethiopia to run in the beautiful lakeside town of Hawassa.  However, this year our participation in the event was prohibited, at the last minute, by our office because of unsafe travel conditions.  There were student protests in the Oromia region and the political stability and general safety were questionable.  Therefore our office made the call to put us on “standfast,” not allowing travel into the Oromia region.

But a bunch of us volunteers were planning on running in the Hawassa Half Marathon.  Some had put months of training into this and we weren’t going to take no for an answer.   Tigray Trek veterans, Hannah, Shay, Mike, and I decided to run a half marathon of our own.  We would run from Shay’s town, Sinkata, to Hawzien, a distance of about 21 KM.

But I was sick.  On Saturday night I felt ok and ate some injera.  That provoked another battle of my insides.  Luckily my body won the fight, but we sacrificed sleep, comfort, and fluids in the process.  I stayed up late clutching my guts and wondered about my ability to run a half marathon the next day while the others slept.  Eventually I slept too and we all awoke at 5am to begin the run to Hawzien.

The run was beautiful and hot as we picked our way over familiar ground towards Hawzien.  We arrived successfully 2 and half hours later, ate breakfast and then bused back to Sinkata.  I made it.  No embarrassing episodes along the way and I felt pretty good after finishing.

One common convention for distance running is called the taper.  The idea is to taper off your running and training before a big race or event so that your body is well rested, fueled, and ready to take on the challenge.  You are supposed to stop running a few days before the big race and just take it easy.  I, in effect, took on the most extreme taper imaginable.  I cut out food, water, running, walking, standing and other ‘normal’ human functions for the 4 or 5 days preceeding this half marathon and I still made it.   So my advice to all you go-getter distance runners who have a hard time staying stationary just before your big race: get a bacteria infection and lay in bed for 4 days.  It worked for me!

Hannah, Mike, Shay and I on the run from Sinkata to Hawzien

Hannah, Mike, Shay and I on the run from Sinkata to Hawzien

Scenery along the Sinkata/Hawzien Road

Scenery along the Sinkata/Hawzien Road

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The Question of the Missing Bed Net

One of the hardest things about telling people about malaria in Abi Adi is the follow through.  I tell people to use a bed net, every night, all the time, even in the dry season, yet if someone actually wants a bed net I have nowhere to send them.  Abi Adi is out of bed nets.

Abi Adi is in a malaria zone and malaria is a problem here as indicated by pretty much every official report available.  So far in the 8 months of the Ethiopian Calendar year 2006, we’ve had 6951 total examinations, and 814 confirmed cases of plasmodium.falciparum and plasmodium.vivax at the Abi Adi Health Center alone.  This doesn’t include the hospital’s numbers.  So this month I’ve been talking to my friends and students about malaria, since it is malaria awareness month after all.  I explain how malaria is only transmitted by mosquitoes, but it requires human hosts to breed and spread.  Using a bed net not only protects you, but also it protects your neighbors by lowering everyone’s risk.

However, I feel like a big hypocrite because when I’m asked where to actually get a bed net, I stutter.  My colleagues at the town Health Office can’t even tell me.  I asked around and everyone had ideas on where to procure a new bed net:

“Well you see, there are limitations, you can only get a bed net if you are a newcomer to the town.”

“I think you can buy a new bed net in the shops around the traffic circle.”

“They have bed nets at the health center but only for children.”

“They will come to distribute bed nets during the rainy season.”

But, if you walk around town, or the countryside, you will see bed nets.  As I wrote last year, bed nets are everywhere in Abi Adi.  They are distributed for free by the government every few years.  The last one of these handouts was a few years ago as far as I can tell.  No one knows when the next one will be, but bed nets are here now.  They are just in the wrong places.

Since they are distributed for free, it is difficult to make sure they are being used properly.  People find other uses for this strong, durable, and large piece of fabric.  It’s used to hold down hay from wind storms.  It’s used as a sheet to create shade.  It’s cut into strips and braided into strong rope used to pull stubborn donkeys or to secure a load of firewood.  To be fair, these bed nets do have a finite lifespan and maybe some of these ‘misuses’ are legitimate efforts at thriftiness.  But I kind of doubt it.

This guy in Mekele uses a scrap of bed net to tie the legs of one more chicken onto his stick.

This guy in Mekele uses a scrap of bed net to tie the legs of one more chicken onto his stick.

Thor and I drinking dirty water in the shade of a misused bed net.  I was thinking about going out to photograph misused bed nets today...but realized that, unfortunately, it's common enough that I could just comb through my existing pictures to find some examples.

Thor and I drinking dirty water in the shade of a misused bed net. I was thinking about going out to photograph misused bed nets today…but realized that, unfortunately, it’s common enough that I could just comb through my existing pictures to find some examples.

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The Countryside of Kola Tembien

Lately I’ve been running almost every morning in Abi Adi.  Then on the weekends I like to extend these runs into adventures out into the countryside surrounding Abi Adi.  I’ll set out early in the morning to hike around for a few hours.  The most striking thing about these adventures is that I’m never alone.   People live everywhere, including in this extremely marginal area.  There are tiny little villages with churches and primary schools scattered around the region in places I would normally overlook.  Most people living in these little hamlets are subsistence farmers relying on the fertility of the land.  They employ many of the same techniques used by their fathers and their fathers before them.

Looking northwest at the countryside of Kola Tembien which surrounds Abi Adi, as seen from the top of Mt. Duramba.  During the dry season, it's difficult to see how subsistence farming could be possible here.  But it is... barely.

Looking northwest at the countryside of Kola Tembien which surrounds Abi Adi, as seen from the top of Mt. Duramba. During the dry season, it’s difficult to see how subsistence farming could be possible here. But it is… barely.

The rains make it all possible!  For a few months a year, things actually grow here among the sand and rocks.

The rains make it all possible! For a few months a year, things actually grow here among the sand and rocks.

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