I am naturally drawn toward the unfortunate, the melancholic, and sometimes the macabre. I gravitate towards philosophies like stoicism and wabi sabi; and I particularly like unfiltered beer. I often enjoy the dark, the coarse, and the imperfect. I sometimes find ‘goodness’ in what other people may find ascetic, crude or just plain bad. Amongst many others, the teachings of Marcus Antonius Aurelius and Jesus of Nazareth have led me to believe that the only life worth living is a life spent in service of other people or in the service of a greater good; even if, especially if, that greater good is never achieved.
Clearly, it is difficult, if not nearly impossible to say definitively that something is good or that it is bad. More often than not, such legalistic polarity does not accurately portray reality and may actually blunt the sharpness of the original goodness/ badness. The reality cannot be found in the middle through a compromise of the two. Rather it is found through ambivalence; an aggregation of the fantastic and of the terrible. Just as the average of an astronomically large number and an infinitesimally small number results in a practically meaningless point in between, the averaging of an experience often results in a meaningless phrase like, “It was interesting,” or, “It was OK.”
The only way I have found to adequately portray my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia is with an oxymoron or otherwise contradictory statement. Peace Corps has been awful and it has been good; it has been “awfully good.” Ethiopia is pretty and it is ugly; it is “pretty ugly.” I never really appreciated phrases like “pretty ugly” until I came to Africa.
For the past two summers Claire and I have participated in a summer camp in Gondar city for high school students from all over the Amhara region. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a Peace Corps program meant to teach young women, and men, about gender equality and leading more fulfilling lives in general. As is tradition, we held a talent show the last night of camp and many campers exhibited their talents as singers, dancers, writers and joke-tellers. One of the students told a joke that elicited as many gasps as it did guffaws. The joke was this:
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is flying over Ethiopia in his private jet with some of his advisers. He looks out the airplane window and sees how sad and poor the Ethiopians below him are. He pulls a 100 birr note out of his pocket and is about to throw it out of the plane when one of his advisers stops him. “Why are you throwing that 100birr note out of the plane,” he asks Meles.
“Because I want to give someone 100 birr and then they will be happy,” Meles responded.
“Then why don’t you throw two – 50 birr notes out and that way two people will be happy?”
Meles is about to throw the two bills out of the plane when another adviser says, “You should throw ten – 10 birr notes out the plane so that ten people will get them and be happy.”
A third adviser stops him again and says, “No, you should throw one hundred – 1 birr notes out of the plane and that way one hundred people will be happy.”
Meles thinks this is a good idea until he turns to his last adviser and it is obvious he wants to give Meles an even better suggestion. “Well, why don’t you speak? What is your suggestion?”
The advisor stares at Meles and says, “You should throw yourself out of the plane and that way everyone in Ethiopia will be happy.”
Meles was dead less than a month later and all of Ethiopia was in mourning. Whether it was real or forced, Ethiopians all over the country were wailing and gnashing their teeth. It was at least partially the result of the potent mix of centuries of Ethiopia culture and the government propaganda that completely dominated Ethiopian communications for weeks after his death. Even if an Ethiopian does not know or even like the person who died, he still mourns for them as a show of solidarity and respect, and in the hope that he will similarly be mourned at his own passing.
Ethiopia did not mourn the African strongman and dictator that puppeteered a farcical democracy for decades. The country did not mourn the man who imprisoned journalists for telling the truth, the man who forced people off their land to lease it to foreign governments, and the man who stole billions of dollars from the Ethiopian people to build an ill-conceived hydroelectric dam that many in the international community curse. Ethiopia mourned the liberator that saved them from the injustice and cruelty of the Derg regime that controlled Ethiopia before Meles came to power. The country mourned the symbol of Ethiopian development and political hegemony on the African continent. There are numerous billboards and posters around Addis Ababa lamenting the fact that, “Africa has lost her one eye.” Meles’s rule was an expression of the Ethiopian desire for a better life, but the unwillingness to accept the difficulties associated with that life. It is not easy to say whether Ethiopia developed because of Meles or in spite of him. Whichever opinion you choose the death of Meles Zenawi was still awfully good.
Claire and I travelled to Bahir Dar, the regional capital of Amhara, for our Close Of Service (COS) conference in late August. While we were reminiscing with our friends from our training group and planning our respective futures we received one of the most enduring lessons of the awfully good. We were unfortunately unaware we were being taught such a lesson until we returned to our home in Debark. While we were gone someone had broken the window on our front door and pushed the glass into the house and onto the floor. Luckily, there were bars welded onto the door, which prevented someone from climbing through the locked door and stealing everything we owned. This was maddening, inconvenient and insulting. However, the icing on the doorstep was a freshly deposited, child-sized stool. Just to clarify, I do not mean an adorably miniature seat designed for young humans. I mean a child took a child-sized shit just to the side of our front door. When I noticed (i.e. smelled) the present I was not able to get angry. Honestly, I was not even a little surprised that it was there. Oh, an Ethiopian kid took a dump right outside our front door while we were gone? Of course they did. Why not? Why wouldn’t an unsupervised Ethiopian child, which is somewhat redundant to say, do that in front of the foreigners’ house?
What did surprise me, however, was the reaction of Aniyo, the man who was watching our landlord’s house while he was away. After the window was broken Aniyo slept on the floor of our outhouse for three nights because he was worried someone would come back and try to break in. Now, really think about that for a few seconds; sleeping… outhouse floor…3 nights. A man that we hardly even knew slept on the floor of an Ethiopian pit latrine for three nights because he wanted our house to be safe. That was awfully good of him.
Peace Corps is neither a simple nor a tidy experience, and generalizations are very difficult to make about volunteers’ experiences in the same country, let alone across countries. Nevertheless, I do think it is safe to say that these experiences are a combination of bad and good events.
I have been winded by my time in Ethiopia. I do not mean winded in the way that a runner may be winded after an endurance run. I mean winded as I have gotten the air shoved out of my lungs by an unexpected collision. I feel like that comically stupid bad guy in a western/medieval/pirate movie that is chasing the film’s hero or heroine on horseback and rides chest-first into a tree branch. Laying on my back staring up at the offending branch I can’t help thinking – Should I get on my horse and keep on the chase or should I just trot off in the other direction? Why was I chasing that guy to begin with? What would other people say if I just turned around and quit the chase? What would I think of myself?
When I tell people about how exhausted I am from my experiences in Ethiopia I often get the “Pick yourself up and get back on your horse” response. That is the polite response, it is the expected response and it is the unquestioning response. It is based on the assumption that I should have been chasing my goal through a low-hanging forest canopy to begin with. It is based on the assumption that the potential exhaustion and bruised self-esteem were worth the risk of helping a handful of people who really had no interest in working with me. I cannot say that the things that I have accomplished and the things that I have learned from being a volunteer in Ethiopia have been worth the risk; worth the cost. However, as the day I leave Ethiopia approaches and I think back about my experiences here, I can say with absolute certainty, “That was Pretty. Ugly.”