Happy 2009!

Another New Year has been celebrated in Ethiopia, which is weird to think about. We celebrated New Year’s Eve by drinking milk and butter coffee – yes, coffee with milk, butter and salt in it. We ate akaayii (roasted barley, chickpeas and peanuts) with nugii (nyjer seed roasted and pounded to a paste with salt and garlic), popcorn with sugar and peanut butter cookies made by yours truly. Midnight celebration of the New Year is not really a thing here, so there were no fireworks or ball drop or anything like that. For New Year’s Day we ate doro wat, a stew of onions, berbere, hard-boiled eggs and chicken. We also ate our weight in homemade bread. We drank coca (think house-made coca cola minus the carbonation) and of course, coffee.

Last New Year we had only been living in our town 5 months and had only spent a total of 8 months in country. Now, we have been living in our town for 17 months and have spent a total of 20 months in country. I remember last year having no expectations of what would go on and kind of just following my landlord’s wife around, house to house and being the center of attention and conversation. This year had a totally different vibe. Reflecting on my behavior one year ago as compared to today I see how comfortable and confident I have become in my life here. How I have come to understand the cultural nuances and the language required to blend in rather than stick out. Of course, I will always stick out as the foreigner, especially in a town with literally no other foreigners, but I felt much more comfortable celebrating the holiday as a member of the community rather than a stranger. I participated in more conversations rather than just fielding the same questions like: “Are you doing research?” or “Is it possible for you to eat injera?” I even caught snippets of conversation around me as people were commenting on how I had learned so much about the culture and participated in it fully. I feel proud, especially because some parts of this experience have been incredibly trying and have brought me to the limits of my patience and luckily, taught me how to be a more gracious and patient person. I had reached a point a few months ago where it felt very difficult not to be offended and speak out when I perceived disrespect from someone. And a few months before that I would just let people say whatever they want for fear of offending someone. I have definitely hit the sweet spot of choosing my battles, understanding when what seems to be rudeness is just different cultural norms or poor language translation, and being able to find the words to calmly explain to someone what I find to be disrespectful (for example, outburst of laughing when I try to speak the local language). It was also nice this year to just walk around on my own and be personally invited to a few homes rather than being the “plus one”. I am forever grateful to Fantaye for helping me be so social whenever she can, but the freedom of being on my own makes me feel like an adult that is living among friends. I participated in preparations for the holiday much more, which was another big accomplishment because a year ago, most people were sure that all Americans only cut onions using a machine and that I basically couldn’t do much. This year, I didn’t even have to force my way in to help, I was asked to do specific tasks and then left to do them unsupervised. I have seen this even in my baking of injera. When I first started, someone almost always was hovering over me and correcting me or commenting on what I was doing. The last few times I baked injera, I was just told “jabbadhu” (be strong) and left to do my work. To gain the respect of my friends here in being able to do the things that they have been doing since they were teenagers has given me a great feeling of joy. This is not to say that I don’t still encounter plenty of times where someone peels a knife away from me because they are sure I can’t possibly use it without cutting myself or when someone tells me the way I am cooking things is wrong because it is a different method than their own, but reflecting back I can see my own growth and the growth of people around me. I can see that although maybe our idea of what we could have contributed workwise to our community falls very short, I am forever changed and my friends here are forever changed because of my presence and that can never be a bad thing. I can definitely see the value of living in other cultures to be able to fully share your life with another and fully experience theirs.


My main gals, Tadu, Yodit and Fantaye late at night on New Year’s Day.


Coffee Hour(s) and the People Who Pour It.

Coffee. Or as it’s known in Ethiopia, buna. It is a life water for people here and the coffee ceremony is the time to gather, to talk, to spend time with friends and family and to escape the heavy workload that women have every day. I want to share some images of some of the coffee ceremonies that I have been a part of and the people who have poured coffee for me on a frequent basis. By the way, Chris and I drink coffee with at least one family every day. Every. Single. Day. Some of the best moments and conversations have happened during these gatherings.


A plethora of plastic slippers signaling a large gathering of coffee-drinkers


Of course, my main lady Fantaye and the house that I drink coffee at most often. Today she is attired for a holiday celebration. I have come to know this home as my own and to feel like a member of this family. Fantaye pours her coffee with salt and on holidays, with butter.

These are some of the times when Fantaye poured coffee for us. Chris handing Kifle’s coffee cup to him in the kitchen, where we have the coffee ceremony when work doesn’t allow Fantaye to get away. Neighborhood kids who have come by to say hi and get some “qursii buna” (coffee snack). Me hanging out with the girls and Biruk on his 6th birthday.

This is Tadu, another neighbor and Kifle’s sister. I have spent many mid-mornings and holidays sitting in her home sipping on coffee. She always boils it with cardamom and sometimes adds rue. She frequently hands me a double layer of coffee cups because she worries about me burning my fingers.


Here is Fitsum, my best friend Yodit’s daughter. Yodit doesn’t drink coffee, so I don’t have it often at her house, but on holidays she makes it and calls for me to come over and drink it.

Here is my beautiful friend Kamila, with whom we celebrated the Muslim holiday to end Ramadan (picture on right). On the left is just another day drinking coffee. Kamila pours her coffee cups with sugar. She is one of the only people in my town who pours it this way.


Here I am, pouring “baraka”, the second round of coffee where fresh hot water is poured over the soaked grounds and re-boiled to enjoy all over again. Sometimes I pour the second round when Fantaye is busy. I have earned the right to pour the mama bear’s jebena!

Electronic Patient Registration

One of our proudest accomplishments during our service has been completing the electronic patient registration at our health center.  Its one of very few things here at site that locals had wanted to complete and had wanted us to help with.  Menschen fur Menschen (a German NGO) built our current health center 5 years ago, so therefore we had a backlog of 5 years of patient registration.  The way the system works here is that a patient when registering for the first time gets a medical record number and folder and are given a small card with this information on it.  On future visits they just read off the number on their card and the health center workers are able to simply pull this number out of the chronologically sorted folders.  However if the patient lost their card, the health worker finds the approximate month or year they visited last and goes through the records one by one.  If no record is found in half a day or so of looking they record keeper will simply issue a new number.  When we embarked on this project our health center head already had a template designed in Excel of what he was looking for.  The task was daunting – manually enter over 15,000 records with name, sex, village, date of registration, age at registration and current age.  Months of 1 or 2 hours of data entry in between sporadic power and all of the other tasks that the health center head is involved in, including training in far off towns, building latrines in neighboring towns, mass drug administrations (MDAs), etc. we finally finished.  Of course I’m not going to share any real information about the content of this data online, but it has lead to some very interesting findings about the system of record keeping here and even more importantly some of the obstacles with the computerization of Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo.

Of course, some of the advantages of computerization are the ability to search for names instead of manually looking through the folders.  In my previous life I spent a good deal of my work hours data mining in manufacturing facilities working on better understanding the massive amounts of data produced to find project opportunities and identify areas that need improvement.  With this finished excel sheet there was also a lot to learn from it.  It was interesting to mine through and see how many people registered each year, what their age at registration was, even to see what day they registered or what month of the year registration peaked out.  It was fun for me to link up the Ethiopian calendar to the excel-based Gregorian to link days and years to the current day that excel knew.

In Afan Oromo one of the key features of the language is the soft and hard vowels and long and short consonants.  This is denoted by the repetition of letters.  One of my favorite examples of how a simple letter changes a word completely is with the verbs Dhufuu (to come) and Dhuufuu (to fart).  We have heard stories that in Metu, which by the way has been spelled Mettu, Metu, Maattuu, Mattuu & Mettuu depending where you look and in what language it is written in, that there was a sign in Metu that instead of saying Baga Nagaa Dhuftaani (You arrived peacefully), one inadvertently said Baga Nagaa Dhuuftaani (You farted peacefully), probably not what was intended.  I’ll be the first to admit that there are probably mistakes with what I think is correct when I write in A.O., but simply put the language is difficult to spell perfectly.  On a computer system this poses a lot of problems.  If you are searching for someone named Chris but they spell it with a “K”, you will simply overlook that data point.  Well this concept is really exacerbated, to a point where I hope online dictionaries and spelling and grammar checks are on their way for mainstream software like Microsoft Office.  I think the point is very clearly understood from this table which is a pivot table where I searched M?h?* which means M(any letter)h(any letter)(any number of letters), so in theory it would find Muhammad, or Mohammed or any other variant.  The results were staggering.

Mahabuba Mohammedawel
Mahamad Mohammednar
Mahamadnur Mohammednur
Mahamed Mohammedzein
Mahamednur Mohamud
Mahammad Mohaz
Mahammadnuur Mohazuu
Mahammadzeen Mohmina
Mahammed Mohomed
Mahammud Mohomednur
Mahamud Muhaajabuu
Maharu Muhaba
Mahateme Muhadi
Mahazu Muhajabuu
Mahmadhani Muhajebu
Mahmed Muhajiba
MahmedAmen Muhamad
Mahuya MuhamadAmin
Mehazash MuhamadNasiro
Mehke Muhamadnur
Mihiret Muhamazen
Mihiretu Muhamed
Mihret Muhamedsali
Mihretu Muhammad
Mohaba Muhammed
Mohamadnur Muhammed Salih
MohamadSaal MuhammedKemal
Mohamadzen Muhammednur
Mohamed Muhammedsalih
Mohamedamin Muhammedtahir
MohamedAmira Muhammedzakir
Mohamednur Muhamudi
Mohammad Muhar
Mohammed Muhasebu
Mohammedamin Muhaz
Mohammedamuu Muhazi
Muhumad Tayer

It would be a nightmare to go and search for 90 different spellings of a name, and it also would be a nightmare to have to go through all of the results if you were to have searched for all of them at the same time, I believe 10% of all the entries had a Muhammad in them, that would be 1500 entries to quickly check, still too time consuming to be realistic.  Also it should be noted that this problem isn’t just for one or two names, literally any name I choose has a similar result. For example, the name Fantaye (which sounds like Fant-eh) yields this:


Another interesting find was the number of missing medical record numbers (MRNs), maybe the patient came, but left before being treated or seen, or maybe the file was misplaced.  In addition there were numbers that were repeated, doubles, sometimes even triplicates or quadruplicates.

Total Records 15793
Highest Record 15088
# of Duplicates 1333
# of Triplicates 121
# of Quadruples 8
Missing #’s 448

There were even instances where there was a patient who maybe came in one year say in the 3,000s and then came back again maybe 2 years later and has a record in the 12,000s for these we kept both instances but it could be confusing to see their medical history at this health center.  Nonetheless although there are many obstacles it’s still a huge milestone to get all of the names and record the use of the health center to determine if future health centers should be built, if our health center is not able to catch a certain demographic or remote population.  Also, while in the process of data entering, we were able to check how it would work in practice a few times and miraculously, it seemed to work every time someone needed us to find a file. Now that the files are all logged and the staff is trained on who to keep on the day to day entry they can easily see how many patients register, when high season is, when the highest visitors visit each day, etc.  I hope that what has been prepared will be used by government officials for years to come to identify areas to improve and better staff the facility given the resources allocated.

Participation Trophies

People joke about the idea that American children are often given ribbons/certificates/trophies simply for participating in activities, not necessarily for excelling in them. I want to present a different view, a different extreme, which I have observed in our town here in Ethiopia. Something that has been difficult for me to hear and observe is the intense level of comparison and criticism that is dealt upon children and adults alike. Chris and I have experienced it personally with our language skills. We are both learning a new language and immersing ourselves fully in a community with very few English-speakers. However, the reception of our efforts is often less than complimentary. People tend to laugh at us frequently because of our language attempts, but the challenge goes beyond that. When we are together and even apart, our adult peers compare Chris and my skills and point out who is better and for whom the language is “not possible”. This direct translation of hin danda’amu to “not possible” is used in many ways in life. School children are compared and even within one family a parent may directly tell their child that a certain subject is “not possible” for them. Then in the same minute they may turn to their other child and say how “very possible” it is for them. Coming from a culture where saying “it’s impossible for you” is somewhat taboo, it is very difficult to hear people criticizing their own children like this. By the way, sometimes “not possible” might be an 80% score. I’m finding myself thankful for my “anything is possible” upbringing from my parents and teachers alike. Doses of reality are good and play useful roles in life, but I am definitely a supporter of the power of positive thinking. I can think back to my patients I have worked with and the elderly patients I met that had lived the most healthy and longest lives were most often positive people with positive support systems. Yes, our confidence and positivity must come from ourselves, but especially during the years when we are changing and growing as kids, it is really important for some of the confidence and positivity to be fostered by friends, family and/or educators. Even educators here compare student-to-student and often right in front of them.

So, what is this driven by? Is it local to my area? Is it widespread in Ethiopia? It’s difficult to say because there are so many differences between education in cities versus rural areas and in private versus public. The focus purely on who holds the highest scores and the lack of attention to those who may be falling behind may stem from the system for getting into university. At the completion of 10th grade, all students take a national exam that determines whether they can continue to 11th grade or will have to take another course of action. For some who don’t pass the 10th grade national exams, they can go to TTC (teacher’s training college) to become an elementary school teacher. Another option is to go to technical school to learn a trade. Others opt to become farmers or be self-employed or employed by their families. Yet another option is to go to driving school and become a driver of sorts. For those students who pass the exam with high enough scores (based on a curve of all students across Ethiopia), they may continue to 11th and 12th grade, which gives them an opportunity to continue to university after. University here is fully paid by the government, which is the up side. The down side is that you do not get to choose what you study or which university you will attend. Your post 12th grade national exam scores determine your university and your field of study. So, imagine going to university and it being free, but not being able to choose what you can study. Is this a good trade-off? One of the clear downsides is that without having the power to choose your field of study, often students are less passionate about their respective fields. Of course, even in the U.S., students often choose a field they feel passionate about, but become disenchanted with it upon entering the work force.

Often the U.S. falls behind other developed countries in educational performance, but the opportunities we have in the states to choose what we want to study, to be celebrated for our efforts even when we don’t stand first in our class, and to be encouraged to think critically and outside the box are absolutely gifts.

The World Map Project

Recently Laura and I brought up the idea to paint a mural on one of the new cinder block walls from the recently built Grade 1-4 buildings.  The idea was received extremely well and right away the principal told us that they have a budget for these beautifications and that they could purchase the supplies.  Well immediately we made up the list of what we thought we would need.   As we started to prime the 4.48m x 2.24m section of wall we noticed we were mistaken, the cinderblocks were like sponges and a gallon wasn’t even enough to finish the first coat.  Here is as far as we got with the gallon.


The final material list after a few visits to the hardware store in Metu was:

  • 3 gallons of white
  • 2 liters of blue
  • 1 liter of green
  • 1 liter of yellow
  • 1 liter of orange
  • 1 liter of red
  • 1 liter of varnish
  • ¼ liter of black
  • assortment of brushes

The materials were overall cheaper than they would be in America but it still came out to around $100, which is basically our base monthly ‘salary’.

I encourage everyone to check out www.theworldmapproject.com which is a website started by a PCV who served in the 80’s.  The website details the whole project.  They have prepared 2 ways of accomplishing this map, either by tracing over a projection if projectors are common, or by making a grid with a certain number of squares.  We chose this grid method and so we made 8cm squares, specifically 56 squares across and 28 vertically.  With these 1500 squares it’s much easier to stay on track and not create a map that slowly starts to veer or finding out that at about 2/3 across you won’t have enough room for Asia.

So after the priming was complete we put a second coat of blue over the entire rectangle.  At this point I borrowed a few meters of some square steel tubing from our only metalworker and after cleaning the rust off with some vinegar we were ready to start lining the maps.  We used regular permanent markers on the block, and we only ruined 3 or 4 by the end.



After making the grid, we referenced 18 scaled down sheets of paper for how to trace out the countries, resulting in this:


At this point we started mixing some of the pastel colors we would need, the map calls for 8 different colors.  One by one we got through all the countries including territories.  Once the colors were all finished we had to paint over all the lines in the ocean that were left, and finally we would paint over the outside of the globe with a different color to hide the numbering of the grid.  It was a fun adventure walking around town trying to find the elusive ‘gas’ that is around.  Apparently in the outlying areas where there is no electricity it is still very common to use these lanterns that burn some type of gas, but this is yet another English/Ethiopian English adventure.  First I asked the bus driver if he could just fill up my liter water bottle with whatever he uses for his bus, I figured at least once every 3 days he has to fill up his bus.  He insisted though, that he would just siphon some out of the bus and then refused to take any money for it.  He called this stuff ‘gas’, but I think it’s diesel.  After a few days of washing brushes and our hands we ran out and so instead of pushing my luck with our kind bus driver, I instead tried to find someone else.  Some more fortunate families have motorcycles that I would think would run on gas, so I started asking and again they insisted they would just siphon it out of their bikes to give me.  I kept trying and found someone selling something called ‘benzilene’, not benzene, which I think is either kerosene or gas.  So to recap there are three things somewhat available here, there is ‘gas’, ‘gas adi’ [white gas], and benzilene.  The benzilene dries really quickly which makes me think its normal gas as used in cars in America.  I think the lanterns run on kerosene, so the ‘white gas’, and the bus I believe runs on diesel, which they call ‘gas’.


The compound kids helping us out with paint by number


We actually used 9 colors because we couldn’t agree on whether teal would be a better option or gray, so we just made a little of both and split up those countries.  The yellow and red we used straight out of the can and because there wasn’t a white base the coverage was really bad, those colors needed a thorough 2 coats to cover the ocean blue.  If I did this project again I would try and find some sealable containers that could keep the mixed colors because we kept returning to the school and would find either the residual paint in the cups, or the mixed paints we had stored in 2 bottom halves of water bottles, painted all over the campus, all over walls and cement walkways, our brushes completely covered in whatever colors we had used that day, etc.  We might add the names of the countries on the sides of the wall not yet painted, but we are a little worried about down this avenue because we don’t want to clutter up the map with the corresponding numbers, especially in the areas like southern Europe with really small countries.



We are both really excited having finished the map, it’s something so tangible and long lasting.  I personally have wanted to do this project for a long time now, it’s obviously very popular in schools and all around the world, and it doesn’t hurt that I have a personal interest in geography.

p.s. I even had time to add South Sudan to an existing mural on another wall at the school.


Recent Meanderings

Take a random walk with us….

Listen to the sounds of the bees above your head.

Traditional beehives hanging far up in the tree

Look at the dirty feet adorned by butterflies.


Delight in the season when the buna trees flower.


Be confused once again at the presence of a cactus tree in a subtropical climate.


Grab quickly for your camera to catch the beautiful bee-eater sitting on a branch.


See that quintessential traditional home with the banana tree out front.


Look at a beautiful old tree….wait….what’s that in the hole in the center?


Oh hello there!


Be amazed at the expanses of untouched wild.






Ant Moving Day

Towards the end of an evening walk in Becho, Chris and I happened upon what appears to be a colony of ants moving homes. They were moving along a river bank in a very organized fashion. Some of the ants lock their bodies together and remain perfectly still to create a safe tunnel for the thousands of ants to traverse through so they don’t fall in the water or otherwise come to harm. They don’t even appear to be live ants, but this is a living tunnel. The solider ants set up at intervals along the path and march around, keeping watch for dangers. They have large front pinchers and having been bit for the first time in Ethiopia by a soldier ant, I can tell you they are NOT messing around.


Chris also took some video, so check out the ants in action here: Ant Relocation