Ferenj Forester in North Dakota

This will probably be my last post to this blog. That is not because the things that happened in Ethiopia are any less important to me, or because I do not have anything else to write about such a unique experience. Merely the context has changed. Instead of a ferenj, a foreigner, in Ethiopia I am a foreigner in my home country. Also, it has been more than a year from my last post. I never expected to even remember the password for the blog at this point, let alone posting on it. Sooo, beka (enough).

We have been back in the U.S. almost as long as we were in Ethiopia. My Amharic is rusty, I am forgetting people’s names and faces, and I have come to accept all of the things/projects/relationships that I was unable to accomplish as a Peace Corps volunteer. But the strongest carryover from Peace Corps is my feeling of not belonging. I felt (almost) at home within six months of moving to our post in Debark, Ethiopia. I have not felt at home in North Dakota. I own a house here, I speak the language (almost), and I have a kid on the way; yet I feel more out of place here than I did as one of only three white people in a rural Ethiopian town. I feel even more otherly, even more odd – even more ferenj.

There are a lot of things that have contributed to this feeling. I have a last name that no one here has ever heard before; which is a bigger deal than I ever thought. I don’t hunt or fish, snowmobile, own a truck, own a gun, or follow college or professional football. No judgment (almost), I just don’t have any interest in those things. I am a vegetarian, dislike Big-Ag companies and practices, and I feel like a stuck-up jackass when I mention traveling anywhere outside the U.S. Despite all of these cultural differences, there is one person that has contributed the most to this feeling of ferenjitood… my neighbor.

There have only been three people in my life that I have truly hated on a personal level. At times I thought that I wanted to physically hurt, or even kill, these people. That if I were given a James Bond-esque license to kill, I would exercise my consequence-free ability to end their lives. As satisfyingly over-dramatic as it is to say that I wanted to kill them, that is never what I actually wanted. I wanted them to disappear. I did not want them to just vanish one day without people knowing where they went. This could bring even more pain, and more confusion, for the people their lives impacted. Or worse yet, they could become martyrs for their own perverse causes. No, I did not want them to die or disappear. I wanted them to have never existed in the first place – in an It’s (Not) a Wonderful Life sort of way.

If these people were to be put back into their lives they would find the world had become a better place in their absence. The unfamiliar world they would walk through would be a happier, more functional and more just place. The angel Clarence would resign without getting his wings and these three men would wander the earth as foreigners in their own lives; unknown to the people they hurt.

The first life I would have forgotten is that of a murderer. The second is an internationally-wanted child rapist, and the third… is my neighbor. My reasons for banishing the first two to nonexistence should be obvious, even without knowing the context of their crimes. They are both in prison. The first is sentenced to life imprisonment and the second, as a storied child rapist in a foreign prison, is likely thinking that death would be a kinder punishment than jail time.

But what could my present neighbor have done to deserve to be the third placeholder? Why is a belligerent retired farmer with copious amounts of free time and delusions of neighborliness on my list for omission? I have been stolen from by neighbors and I have been kept up for days on end by noisy neighbors. The usual stuff. In Ethiopia, we even had a drunken, gun-yielding neighbor (the local police chief) destroy the fence between our compounds when he tried to climb over it.
So, why this one old man in North Dakota?

My favorite poem is Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, and I try to live by its lessons. It starts:

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”

As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.” Occasionally, turning the other cheek only perpetuates and reinforces the harm that people bring against others. Reckless hate – wild, ignorant malice – cannot be solved with hate; but it also cannot be solved with love for the person doing harm. Yes, reckless hate can only be conquered by love, but it is righteous love for the things that hate threatens.

My neighbor started a months-long property dispute over a petty fenceline disagreement. He was ultimately shown to be incorrect, but not before months of threats and harassment and creating a stack of legal and surveying fees. He said he was going to kill my dogs, made us feel unsafe in our own home and tore our fence out (then tried to take us to court over his cost to remove the fence). He was the first person I met in the neighborhood and he threatened to sue me (for something else) before he even introduced himself. I did not surrender, and despite my best efforts I am certainly not on good terms with this person. I honestly don’t know if anyone is on good terms with this person . To this xenophobic sack of human misery I am, and always will be, a ferenj. At least that is something that we can both agree on.

Here’s to a better year. Here’s to my neighbor learning that Love is a four-letter word when you are on the wrong side of it. And here’s to a homecoming… wherever that home may be.    La tenachin

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Life in America 2.0

It was more than a year ago that I was preparing to leave Debark, the village that had been my home for nearly two years. I had no idea where I would be a year from then, or even what I may be doing. The town that I am now living in has two paved roads, dogs roam loose at night and I have to go to the post office to pick up all my mail; very little has changed, or at least none of the unimportant parts that came to define my life as a foreigner living in Africa have changed. Two months ago I did not even know the town I am in existed, but now I have a job in a nearby town and I have already placed and removed an offer to buy a home here. Its two bedrooms and one bath seem cavernous compared to the 200 square feet of mud and eucalyptus poles that I shared with my wife and a cadre of dogs a year ago. Oddly enough, our house in Ethiopia was better constructed, hence the removal of our offer to buy the house here in Granville, North Dakota.

When Claire and I started Peace Corps, two years seemed like such a long time. That was half of a Bachelor’s Degree, a full Master’s Degree, a renewed apartment lease. That was longer than it takes to fall in love, longer than it takes to feel settled in a new job, longer than it takes to forgive someone or to be forgiven. Two years was a lifetime… And now it has been half of a lifetime since I left Ethiopia.

Now time gets real. Two years is nothing. Two years is two Christmas seasons, two birthday parties. It is two summer vacations, two harvests and two times watching the ball drop in Times Square (or at least pretending that I wasn’t too sleepy or too drunk to stay up and watch it). Two years is two years spent away from the people and experiences that defined every day I used to have in Africa. It is having the horrors and the blessings of a previous life numbed by time. I cannot say, “My wife and I just got back from living in Ethiopia for two years.” Our cocktail party cred has begun a precipitous decline as we become just regular Americans instead of Ferengi. I am bored and I feel boring.

The next house Claire and I live in will likely be our home for at least two years. It will be our fourth move in a year. More than two years in the same house sounds fantastic, but at the same time it is somewhat daunting. I have not lived in the same house for more than two years since high school. Despite having cold feet for adulthood I want to be able to work in the garden, brew beer in my basement, write for fun, and to raise cute children with Ethiopian or Irish names. I am ready… as ready as I will be.

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The grass was cool and wet from the day’s rains and the fire cast a ring of rising fog around itself as the dew was chased away. I laid down on the grass about ten feet from the fire, propping myself up on my elbow. Pulling sheets of paper from the stack beside me, I crumpled up each piece and tossed them one by one into the fire. The flaming pile of paper, cardboard and spent candle stubs cast a noiseless, shadowless light over the entire compound. There were no snaps or pops of smoldering twigs like a campfire would have. The flames were completely silent. One of our dogs, Cinni, was curled in a tight ball next to me and raised an eyelid every time I moved to throw something into the fire.  

The papers were torn from more than a dozen Peace Corps manuals, reports and information packets that we had accumulated over our two years as PCVs. It was our last night in Debark and we had been cleaning our house all day to get ready for our departure in the morning. I was burning all of our nonplastic trash to get ready for the new volunteer who was going to move into our house once we moved out. Due to the difficulties that the volunteer before us had had, and the problems Claire and I had faced in our town, this new volunteer would likely be the last PCV the town would ever have. That did not bother me. At the time I was just happy that we had done as much as we could. As I laid there thinking back on the past two years, I only regretted that I came to Ethiopia with such unrealistic expectations; with such delusions of optimism. I was throwing paper into the fire too slowly and it was beginning to die down so I walked over and dumped a stack of forms into the compost pit that acted as an impromptu fire ring. I watched the sheets burn one by one as they blackened and peeled back from the upper corner as if the fire were reading them.  

A girl that lived in the compound next to ours had apparently been watching me for several minutes through the eucalyptus poles that separated the compounds.

Chigur mindin naw?”     What’s the problem?

Chigur yellum.”    There’s no problem.

Min iya sara naw?”    What are you doing?

MinumDamera bicha naw.”   Nothing… It’s just a bonfire.

She grunted a soft acknowledgement and cast a confused glance over her shoulder as she turned and left. I’m sure it was strange seeing a lone white guy staring into a fire in the middle of the night. My use of the word for celebratory fire for just burning trash did nothing to ease her confusion.

I don’t question why she assumed there was a problem, but there was no problem. I actually felt great. It was one of the best moments of my life. I burned away the detritus of the bureaucracy that had plagued me for the previous two years; in a garden that I had built from scratch, with an incredible dog curled next to me, on a cool summer night on the Roof of Africa. My best friend was packing our bags just inside and the next day we would leave the village that had been our home in Africa… and despite wanting to visit, we would probably never return.

That half hour spent lying on the grass and staring into the fire signaled the beginning of our departure and was one of the most cathartic moments of my life. It was a pregnant pause that separated what my life had been and what it would be. I was not scared, disappointed, sad or conflicted. Nor was I happy… but I was content. I felt like my life had meaning. I was mindful of the moment’s importance in my life and I felt it passing without anxiety. I did not try to prolong it or end it prematurely. When the fire had burned out I simply stood up, patted the dog goodnight and walked inside to kiss my wife.  

Such moments are rare, or at least they are for me. They only happen when I am not expecting them to happen. After a monotonous week at the worst-paying job I have had since high school I crave clarity. I need a genuinely edifying experience, but I never get one. Sometimes the only solution to a bad day is a short glass of bourbon. This is not to get drunk, to drink for the sake of drinking, or to try to make yourself forget your problems. It is to pull the chill from one’s soul by immersing the mind in a glass-walled hot spring. And to feel the sorrows of an unextraordinary life get chased down the throat with a tannin-tinged fire.

Although booze may be a passable substitute for emotional clarity, true catharsis, true release from one’s anxieties and emotions, is only possible in the presence of great faith. By Faith I do not mean the suspension of rational thought, but rather the willful suspension of anxiety over uncertain outcomes. Faith implies believing in something uncertain. As Marcus Borg points out, “if there were no uncertainty, the verb would be know, not believe (Speaking Christian, 118). Faith does not imply neglecting one’s ability for reason as it has come to mean in many modern religious communities. Instead of implying trust, Faith has come to mean certainty in God’s “good” actions and the “intended” outcome of the world. However, where there is no uncertainty there is no doubt, where there is no doubt there is no room for trust. According to former Harvard Chaplain Elton Trueblood, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.”

Faith is not certainty that everything will turn out the way you want it to. Faith is trust; faith is the acceptance that the world will not be the exact way you want it to be. It is the acknowledgement that the world is a work in progress and will never be perfect as you see it. The world was far from perfect while I was lying on the grass outside my Ethiopian home. I was discouraged, disappointed, and disillusioned. After spending more than two years in Ethiopia I had been robbed, punched, kicked, cursed, bitten, and pelted with rocks. However, I had also been hugged, kissed, laughed with, and stuffed full of delicious food and honey wine on countless occasions. I had faith because I trusted that no matter what misfortune happened to us that we would get the help we needed and that our American and Ethiopian friends would rally around us. Despite our dogs being beaten by sticks on our way to the main road, we could walk to our friend’s café where they would be given fresh bread and played with. Despite coming home disheartened from a worthless meeting at the Park office, I could sit with friends at the Tej Bet and sip delicious fermented honey.

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”Henry David Thoreau

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Applicant’s Prayer

Finishing a thesis, working 40 hours for just above minimum wage and job-hunting for something in my field at the same time makes Derek a dull boy. Just some fresh fruit from the procrastination bush:


Oh, hirer, who art in Human Resources

Hallowed be thy keyboard

Thy keystroke come,

Thy position fill be done, with me

As the new hire

Give us this day our daily job post

And forgive us our applications,

As we forgive those who apply against us

And lead us not into temp work,

But deliver us from unemployment,

For thine is the selection,

The interview and the hire,

For ever and ever.


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A great letter to people contemplating Peace Corps- Not written by me (i.e.less cynical)


An Open Letter

Dear Person Contemplating Joining Peace Corps,

I imagine that you’re at a transition point in your life. Perhaps you’ve just graduated, perhaps you’re going through a career change, perhaps you have an itch for something more that can’t be scratched. Whatever the reason, here you are: contemplating joining Peace Corps.

But should you? Is it right for you?

Honestly, you might not know that until you’ve arrived. You can research by reading books and official publications or by talking with current/returned volunteers, but everything you read and hear will probably tell you the same thing: every person’s experience is different. Your Peace Corps life will be uniquely shaped by your country, program, and site.

I’d like to think, though, that there are a few things that are universal throughout the Peace Corps world, and those things tend all to revolve around how you yourself will change – for the better and for the worse – because of your time in Peace Corps.*

‘Sanitary’ will become an obsolete concept. You will eat on mats that you know are saturated in urine. You will prepare food on counters that also serve as chicken roosts. You will not have consistent/frequent access to soap. You will eat street food that is undoubtedly questionable. You will be dirty, dusty, and sweaty at all times. You will have mind over body battles to force yourself to bucket shower in the winter. Bugs, lizards, chickens, ducks, and mice will crap on everything. These things will be ok. You’ll adjust. The sterile environment of the States will become a distant odd memory or a constant fantasy.

Your body, though, might not adjust as quickly. You will have parasites and infections and illnesses that you had never heard of before training. You will be constantly constipated. Or go the opposite extreme. I hate to say it, but you will probably poop in your pants at least once. You will learn to vomit over a squat toilet and into a plastic bag during a bus ride. You will discuss your bodily functions openly and enthusiastically with other volunteers. No topic will be taboo.

The way you communicate will completely transform. Learning a language from scratch through immersion is a powerful experience. You will learn to have complex communications though expressions, gestures, and basic vocabulary. You will learn to bond with another human being through silence. You will answer the same basic questions over and over and over again. You may never achieve the ability to discuss ideas and concepts. You will develop a new English language which consists of pared down vocabulary and grammatical structures. You will actively think of each word before you speak. Your speech patterns will slow. You will have to define words whose meanings you had always taken for granted. You will learn to listen.

Your concept of money will entirely alter. Paying more than $1 for anything will cause you to pause and question your purchase. You will understand value in the context of a different economic system. You will learn to barter, even on cheaper items. You will consistently feel as though you have been cheated on the price. You will be enraged by all prices upon returning to the States.

You will embrace the thrilling dichotomies of thrift versus splurge and ration versus binge. No one knows how to budget like a Peace Corps volunteer. And no one can binge like one.

You will be discontented with your work. You will wonder – and scream to the heavens – about the benefit of your presence. You will feel lost in unstructured expectations and crushed by promising ideas fallen to the side. Your expectations will fade into an unexpected reality. You will learn to celebrate small victories. You will look at mountains and see mole hills. You will try to tackle the impossible. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you’ll just pick yourself up and take aim at another impossibility.

You will learn to do all of this through pure self-motivation. You will be the one to drag yourself out of bed and out the door. You won’t have anyone holding your hand or pushing your forward. Just you. You will become a stronger person for yourself, by yourself.

You will be a celebrity in your community. That status comes will hardships and benefits that will ineradicably change you. You will be the exception to the societal rules. You will be the foreigner, the one set apart. You will receive privileges and have special attention/status because of your nationality. You will always have eyes on you. You will have joined as an agent of culture exchange and understanding, but you will still find yourself falling into an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Use it. Consider it. Contemplate the value we place on people because of arbitrary characteristics. You will come away from your experience more attune to your own merits, to those that are deserved and to those that are given.

Your culture of personal space, one that maybe you have always taken for granted, will be challenged. You will wonder why you need an entire room to yourself while no one else even has a bed to himself. You still won’t want to give your room up. Privacy will be a privilege or a rarity, not a right.

You will lose all control of your emotions and be on an unpredictable roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. You will go from happy and confident to sullen and tearful by things as simple as ants in your candy or yet another child saying ‘Hello!’ Your highs will be high, but they will be fragile. Your lows will feel inescapable. Your family and friends in the States probably won’t understand this. Your isolation will force you to become your own support system. You will become aware of yourself in the context of solely being yourself.

Your government-issued friends will be your reprieve. The love and closeness you share with people back in the States won’t change, but it will be your fellow volunteers who understand. They will be friendships forged from necessity, and they will be deep and fervent.

You will witness a whole new way of life, and you will question your notion of necessity. You will consider your personal wealth, and people will constantly remind you of it. You will discover what your ‘needs’ are to live a productive, satisfied life. I hope you will remember that when you return to a culture of plenty.

You will be the biggest product of your Peace Corps work. You will change. And you will bring that change back with you.

*I insert a disclaimer: I believe the above assertions to be true for PC Cambodia, a program in its 6th generation of volunteers; I cannot speak with authority on other countries’ programs.

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Can’t win ’em all

I have not posted for a while because I have not known what else to write about and we have been too preoccupied looking for jobs and an apartment, in addition to completing my thesis. For all intents and purposes Peace Corps is over. The only vestiges of our Peace Corps experience that seem to be hard to shake off have been a compromised GI track and my thesis, both of which I have been trying to get rid of throughout my service. It is oddly fitting that they are the only two things remaining because I have enjoyed writing my thesis as much as I have enjoyed periodically pooping myself. The turbulent and unpredictable confluence of first-world academia and third-world bureaucracy has not made for a smooth ride before, during or after Peace Corps. I spent weeks trying to develop research projects that were small enough to not require thousands of dollars of research fees for the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and the local government district, yet in-depth enough to meet the requirements for my degree. Broken promises and corrupt government officials resulted in a half-dozen half-finished research projects, which currently populate a folder on my computer named “DEAD.” My inability to complete a cohesive research project resulted in an eclectic 120 page monstrosity looking at numerous aspects of tourism and ecology in the Simien Mountains region.

This past week I was informed that I needed to rewrite my thesis – nullifying literally hundreds of hours of writing and research and requiring weeks of additional composition. I was also told that it was unlikely that I would be able to graduate with my degree until December; despite having completed all other requirements aside from the final paper. It would have made more sense to complete graduate school before or after Peace Corps instead of trying to stumble my way through the ambiguous and nebulous Peace Corps Masters International Program. It would have been cheaper, more direct, would have required far less work and would have resulted in a less stressful Peace Corps service.

Since much of my paper will never see the light of day and because I will be busy rewriting it, I will post some sections of the paper here instead of trying to write about my experiences back in the states – at least for a little while. I’ll start with a subject that I have briefly written about before in previous posts; Traditional Ethiopian agricultural and foreign aid. It is an unedited academic paper so read at your own risk. By the way, SMNP stands for Simien Mountains National Park. Please let me know if you have questions about my Peace Corps service, Ethiopia or my paper and would like me to write about it.

Agriculture and Food Aid

Almost 95% of the people in Simien are dependent on rain-fed subsistence agriculture (Zeleke, 2010). High crop yields from these rain-fed systems are completely contingent on the auspicious timing of, and amount of precipitation during, the highland rainy seasons. The rainfall over the past few decades has become more erratic and poor Kiremt rainy seasons are becoming more common. Changing climatic conditions and poor soil management mean that even in good seasons, on-farm crop production only supplies a maximum of 50% of the local population’s annual food requirements (Guinand, 2001). The dominant, traditional Ethiopian agricultural system relies on extensification, the horizontal expansion of cultivated areas, for increasing productivity instead of increasing production on previously cultivated fields (Bongers & Tennigkeit, 2010) Because all lands suitable for cultivation, along with many areas not suitable for cultivation, are already being cultivated there is no land left for traditional farmers to expand out into. Uncertain and generally poor growing conditions, poor soil quality and inadequate productive land for the growing population result in a highly food-insecure population in the Simien region.

Poor agricultural practices are common, especially in upland areas, such as Gich. The ratio of soil erosion to new soil formation is 10-15 times higher than the sustainable rate on the average cultivated slope (Puff & Nemomissa, 2005), and soil productivity is declining 3% annually due to the land degradation in the area (Guinand, 2001). Insecure land tenure discourages land users from investing time, money and labor on the land they cultivate or graze (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008).

Using dung as an energy source, and to a limited extent a construction material, instead of using it as a fertilizer causes significant agricultural and ecological problems. For every quintal (100kg) of dung used for fuel instead of fertilizer, a reduced crop yield of 18-20kg can be expected. Cumulatively, this can add up to a very sizable reduction, due to the large amount of dung used as fuel. In the Simien region, this crop loss can be as high as 180-400kg per household (Grunenfelder, 2005). Using ash from dung fires as a soil amendment is not common in the Simien Mountains. Some households sweep up and place ash in plastic bags instead of placing it outside. Ironically, wealthier people often throw used batteries and ripped plastic bags on the ground outside, and collect ash from cook fires to dump in latrines (simply for disposal) or put it in trash bags. Ash is often seen simply as a waste product and not a useful byproduct.

Poor investment in soil fertility, a lack of technical knowledge concerning highland agricultural management, uncertain climatic conditions and a history of food aid distributions have led to a high level of dependency on international food aid in the Simien area. Many people living within the park boundary or nearby the park are dependent on food aid up to six months out of the year (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008).

Recent research in Ethiopia suggests that food aid can be a disincentive for local food producers at certain levels and in certain policy situations (Tadesse & Shively, 2009). Some argue that withdrawing food aid in Ethiopia can ultimately improve aid recipients’ welfare by spurring domestic food production instead of suppressing it (Gelan, 2007). When food aid is expected, but arrives late it reduces beneficiaries’ abilities to develop coping mechanisms to local food shortages. Instead of finding local alternatives or even migrating many people in the North Gondar Zone continue to rely on food aid even when it usually comes too late to be beneficial (Rami, 2002). Additionally, aid has been shown to hasten population growth and simultaneously reduce investments in human capital in Sub-Saharan Africa (Azarnert, 2008). A well-intentioned, yet poorly conceived work-for-food program in Dabat Town, located just south of Debark, directly contributed to increased fertility rates among beneficiary households. Larger aid allowances for larger families motivated families to have more children so that they could receive more aid (Rami, 2002). An analysis of free food aid distribution programs in Ethiopia revealed that food recipients often had a higher perceived famine risk after they began receiving aid. This is possibly due to the receipt of aid being seen as an indicator of a decline in food security for beneficiaries (Gilligan & Hoddinott, 2006). It is also at least partially due to recipients’ desires to continue receiving food aid. It would be simple, and shortsighted, to state that food aid is always detrimental to all recipient communities. Food aid has been shown to provide considerable benefits to recipients when the assistance is well-targeted and properly timed, however, it often is not. For example the depression of local cereal prices can benefit poorer community members by making food more affordable (Levinsohn & Mcmillan, 2007).

While humanitarian reasons are the primary basis for food aid, especially in Africa (Ball & Johnson, 1996), there is a growing body of evidence that suggests food aid is also largely motivated by political and economic gains for the donors (Awokuse, 2011). Kirwan and McMillan (2007) found that food aid deliveries to Ethiopia were primarily driven by wheat prices in the United States and had very little to do with the level of grain production in Ethiopia. Recent evidence has shown that food aid policies are often driven by benefits to farmers in donor countries instead of aid recipients in food insecure countries (Levinsohn & Mcmillan, 2007). This combination of altruistic and self-interested reasons for providing food aid means that food aid will likely be a development issue in the Simien Mountains region for the foreseeable future. International tourist attractions in developing countries, such as the Simien Mountains, often have the additional potent combination of high local need and high visibility for foreigners. This combination further diminishes the likelihood of food aid distribution being slowed in the area any time soon because potential food aid supporters are put in direct contact with potential food aid recipients. Ironically, foreign visitor support for food aid distribution may help weaken the tourist-attracting features of the area that had brought them to the Simien region to begin with. The most apparent example of this is the road that was built directly through park, which was primarily constructed to facilitate food aid distribution.

In an unfortunate case of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Emergency Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE) were found on opposite ends of the aid issue. While UNESCO has vehemently and consistently called for the relocation of settlements inside and adjacent to the park, the UN-EUE was a strong supporter of constructing the road through the park  to facilitate food aid distributions to the same people (Guinand & Ugas, 1999)(Guinand, 2001). The road has also accelerated settlement inside the park as transportation into and out of the park has become easier. I have personally spoken to several people who moved inside the park because they expect compensation from the government or a foreign donor if a resettlement program is ever carried out within the park boundary. The road through the park is a completely uncontrolled means of transportation for people and materials through the park and multiple ecological problems with the road were identified in the park’s general management plan (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008). After the road was completed the UN-EUE did an abrupt about-face and acknowledged the damage from this “food aid highway” (Rami, 2002; pg 7). The organization now acknowledges that the road not only causes direct ecological damage through erosion and wildlife habitat fragmentation, but that it also “destroys the resources of eco-tourism, which is one of the few, if not the only dollar-earning industry in this part of Ethiopia” (ibid).

Since the predecessor of USAID began giving aid to Ethiopia in 1952, millions of dollars have been provided to the Ethiopian government every year. Between 1952 and 2011 Ethiopia has been “gifted” over $9.8 billion. USAID gave Ethiopia over $678 million in 2011 alone, which is actually down from the $839 million given in 2010 (Spevacek, 2011). Ethiopia has remained one of the primary recipients of non-military aid from the U.S. for years and receives millions of dollars more from other countries for development assistance and humanitarian aid. In 2011 the British International Development Secretary announced that despite “reports that huge sums of money had been wasted or simply been stolen on the ground,” and cutting aid to twenty other countries, Ethiopia will become the largest recipient of foreign aid from the UK by 2015 (Chief Reporter, 2011).

Over 80% of the humanitarian funding to Ethiopia between 2005 and 2009 was for emergency food aid, while barely half a percent of the funding for the same period was for disaster preparedness (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2010). This means that only a fraction of humanitarian funding flowing into Ethiopia, including the Simien region, goes towards actually reducing the country’s vulnerability to events that necessitate emergency food aid. It is also likely that governments that know food aid shipments can be relied upon in times of famine will choose not to invest in sustainable agricultural development (Kirwan & McMillan, 2007), which further decreases the country’s food security. The rapidly increasing human population within the SMNP boundary and the park buffer zone has resulted in widespread natural resource degradation, weakened traditional livelihoods and has threatened the region’s ecotourism potential. Even though the value of the SMNP managed for wildlife conservation, scenic beauty, natural heritage and tourism far exceeds the value of the park as an agricultural production area, agricultural production is given priority over all other management concerns (Bergman, 2011). Aid agencies must very carefully evaluate the effects of food aid in the Simien Mountains and determine what the best long-term solutions are for the residents of the region; even if that means the cessation of food aid deliveries.


Awokuse, T. O. (2011). FOOD AID IMPACTS ON RECIPIENT DEVELOPING COUNTRIES : A REVIEW OF EMPIRICAL METHODS AND EVIDENCE. Journal of International Development, 23, 493–514. doi:10.1002/jid

Azarnert, L. (2008). Foreign Aid , Fertility and Human Capital Accumulation. Economica, 75, 766–781. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0335.2007.00661.x

Ball, R., & Johnson, C. (1996). Political, economic and humanitarian motivations for PL 480 Food Aid: evidence from Africa. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 44, 515–547.

Bergman, T. (2011). Recommendations for the Management of the Simien Mountaisn National Park. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Bongers, F., & Tennigkeit, T. (2010). Degraded Forests in Eastern Africa: Introduction. In F. Bongers & T. Tennigkeit (Eds.), Degraded Forests in Eastern Africa: Management and Restoration (pp. 1–18). Washington, D.C.: Earthscan.

Chief Reporter. (2011, February 20). Ministers axe foreign aid to half the current countries. The Sunday Telegraph.

Frankfurt Zoological Society. (2008). Simien Mountains National Park General Management Plan 2009-2019. Frankfurt.

Gelan, A. U. (2007). Does Food Aid Have Disin-centive Effects on Local Production? A Gen-eral Equilibrium Perspective on Food Aid in Ethiopia. Food Policy, 32, 436–458.

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Burning up on reentry

Home. For the first time since September 2010 Claire and I are back on American soil indefinitely. We are finally back, and we are here to stay. Well… at least for a while. We were told for months before we left Ethiopia that coming back to the US after living in another culture can often be more difficult than adjusting to that new culture initially. Stories of depressed and jobless RPCVs sitting on fetid couches littered the floors of our minds like empty fastfood cartons. Peace Corps staff, ex-pats and returned volunteers hoped to give us realistic expectations of what life would be like when we stepped foot in the states. However, this often resulted in horror stories that ended with, “but I’m sure that won’t happen to you.”    

The strength of this “reverse culture-shock” is highly individualized and depends on the culture being returned from, the length of time spent in that culture, the events that transpired in that country and in the individual’s home country, the personality of the individual and numerous other factors.  For Returning Peace Corps Volunteers the effect is often compounded by the realities of being unemployed, having tenuous housing options, and admitting to oneself that you do actually like dubstep music despite saying that you don’t think it makes any sense.

I find that RPCVs are hesitant to speak negatively about their service with people who have not experienced Peace Corps, but will often expound for hours about how much they hated their site when with other PCVs and RPCVs. This is often an exercise in optimism that is intended to make the service sound better to both the people listening and the volunteers themselves. Also, volunteers can more realistically talk about their service with other people who have gone through similar experiences. Many things can be left unsaid and more meaningful dialogues can take place when the foundation of a Peace Corps service does not have to be discussed over and over again. But before we could talk about our service with people back home, first we had to get home.        

After our sleepless flight from Bangkok to Tokyo we stopped at the first café we found in the airport and ordered large coffees and a bagel. We had no idea how much we were paying because the prices were in yen and we did not know the exchange rate. So when I handed the barista my credit card I half-expected it to be maxed out when I checked my statement, but at that point I hardly cared. After locating the gate for our next flight we crashed on the first open seats we found. As we laid down we realized that there was a reason no one was sitting where we were and had our first rude awakening in the developed world. Our seats were at the end of a moving walkway; one of those Jetsonian horizontal escalators that move people along at a pace just under that of a disgruntled Ethiopian cow. Sensors at the end of the walkway would trigger warnings for the cattle on the walkway that the end of their journey was near. Every two seconds the “Travelator” would warn its passengers in English and then in Japanese that they should be careful when stepping off. Such a human conveyor belt would not only be seen as worthless in Ethiopia, it would also likely stop working a week after it was installed and would never be fixed. However, there would never be a warning that the walkway was ending. In Ethiopia, if you fell on your face when stepping off of the walkway you would get laughed at and it would be entirely your fault. I saw it happen as we were leaving Ethiopia when a young Muslim woman fell while hesitantly stepping onto an escalator in the Addis Abeba airport. The walkway warning was a very simple yet very apparent reintroduction back into the litigious world of people with first-world problems. If an old woman can receive millions of dollars for getting burned when she spills obviously hot coffee on herself then I don’t even want to think how much someone tripping while stepping off the “Travelator” would get.       

We were able to get a few minutes of shuteye before our 11 hour flight to Dallas. Despite being the second of two completely sleepless flights I would still rather spend two sleepless nights on a plane than a sanityless day on a close-windowed Ethiopian bus. After groggily clearing customs in Dallas we boarded our final flight to Denver. We arrived at DIA late in the morning on Friday December 14.th  As soon as we got in the car we were slapped in the face by the news of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary that had taken place just hours before. Really? I thought, this is the America I am coming back to?  

As I was having my first Christmas since moving back to the states, hundreds of people were having what would probably be the worst Christmas of their lives as they mourn the deaths of their children, playmates and neighbors. Chocolate advent calendars and pre-wrapped presents will go unopened and Christmas crafts will sit uncompleted. I don’t mean to trivialize the deaths of children by bringing up such simple losses. These are just the unfinished holiday rituals that my mind is drawn to when I think about what families in Connecticut have to bear. I missed these traditions as much as the people I did them with while I was living in Africa and the thought of these lost experiences is heartbreaking.     

In a previous post I talked about countries putting assault rifles on their flags as a symbol of power and authority. In America, the silhouette of a rifle now symbolizes the senseless death of innocent people. Banning assault weapons will not end mass shooting, it will merely disassociate the symbol from the concept it came to portray. However, it is a step towards ending such violently tragic outpourings of alienation, rage and hopelessness.  It is undoubtedly NOT the silver bullet that gun-control lobbyists claim; just a step towards a less tragic future. If banning someone’s toy saves a single life I will have no problem supporting legislation to do it.

As someone who has fired a powerful rifle and enjoyed it, I can tell you that holding such a rifle brings a palpable psychological sense of power, awe and authority. Such an object in the hands of a mentally imbalanced person has been shown to be incredibly dangerous. It will take reform in mental health care, gun control, and in our perceptions of the two in order for positive change to happen.

As I take my first tentative steps back in my self-piteous, self-righteous and self-obsessed homeland I realize why so many returning volunteers sink into a stupor upon their arrival. The glory of ‘Merica was played up and romanticized in a global display of the “the grass is always greener” mentality for two years. Mass shootings, the fiscal cliff, and a post-pubescent Justin Beiber await. Reality does not reflect the end of the tunnel that returning to America once represented.      

Lastly, the December 21st Mayan Doomsday misinterpretation… To the pessimistic eschatologists from any religion or worldview who say the end is near – Shut up. It is far easier to say that the sky is falling than to actually work with people you may disagree with to prop the sky up. Whether you call this a tangent, a postscript, or a brain cough, just… Shut up and do something. Despite the occasionally harsh reality of returning to America I am still optimistic about the future and I am excited to start my new life here. I have a wonderful wife, a very supportive family, great friends, a fantastic dog and a strong resume. YOLO

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