Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Dad’s impressions on visiting Ethiopia Peace Corps Volunteers

We were lucky enough to have Daniel's parents visit us just a few weeks ago. Daniel's mom wrote a blog after her visit in 2012, and so we thought we'd have his dad write a blog for us after this more recent visit.

Although Daniel and Danielle (aka “the Ds’) would be leaving Ethiopia soon, Ethiopia would never leave them. Therefore, I wanted to come and experience the sights, sounds and smells of Adwa. Debbie’s visit a year and a half ago increased my desire to see their Ethiopian home. I was not disappointed!

Lost and Found

We were at their home for perhaps 2 seconds before we realized my big blunder of the trip. My backpack containing cell phone, ipad, ipod, and all my malaria medication had been left on the bus that drove us the twenty-some kilometers from the Axum airport to Adwa. Amazingly within 4 hours the backpack was miraculously found. The fascinating part was the experience of seeking and receiving help from the Adwa bus station employees. I was so impressed by how quickly our problem became the bus station manager’s problem and how much the Ethiopians wanted to help. However, though I had no fear of physical harm, the utter confusion and bewilderment I experienced made it seem I was in a movie with a mixture of scenes from Captain Phillips, Argo and the bar scene in Star Wars. I was both completely baffled and fascinated by the intense Tygrinia flying around the small room joined in by the growing number of curious bystanders. It was awesome to stand back and watch Danielle and Daniel actually communicate and interact in what would have been for me, were I alone, an absolutely frightening and impossible dilemma. I was so proud!

On the Street Where You Live

Our pride and admiration of Daniel and Danielle’s wits, adaptability and kindness just grew by leaps and bounds while walking through their neighborhood. Strolling through Adi-Haki with them was simply a cool experience. Inside their house sitting at their table or chatting on the couch, we felt like we could have been in the Ds’ home in Waco, TX or Marion, IN. So comfortable and familiar and “D and D-ish” they had made their home. But once we stepped outside their compound, the extreme foreign-ness of it hit me like a ton of bricks. The staring faces reminded us of how different to all around us we must seem. The dusty street, lined with shacks and tiny shops and small cafes, the herd of goats, the frequent donkeys and occasional camel were fascinating and so unlike anything I had ever seen. The strangeness at first prompted anxieties but before long I came to love that quarter of a mile stretch. Every single time we left the compound we heard their names, “Danielle (for Daniel) and “Danayit” (for Danielle) called out by young children, by students and shopkeepers; and the cutest kids running up to shake the Ds’ hand in the traditional Ethiopian way (right hand extended with left hand on their right elbow) followed by a fist bump in the American style. The enthusiasm and joy these kids showed when they saw and greeted them was so heartwarming. All the more so because these greetings were shouted in such an exotic setting by people at once so different from, and yet, so bonded to Daniel and Danielle. (Question: How will you adjust back in the States when you are no longer treated like rock stars?)

Drinking Coffee Ceremonially

We had 5 coffee ceremonies in 6 days. These rituals, the hallmark of Ethiopian hospitality, lasted any where from 2 to 3 hours. While we had coffee ceremony in a variety of settings (the Ds’ backyard, a restaurant, and in the homes of both poor and well-to-do families) there were certain constants: the woman (always a woman) roasting, grinding, brewing and pouring the coffee and doing so with meticulous care and flair as if a well-done coffee ceremony is a touchstone or litmus test of womanhood. And no sign of hurry or shortcutting the process; taking the Appalachian offer to “come sit a spell” to a whole new level. It certainly is a custom that places a premium on conversation; on slowing down with friends and chatting as you work your way through the preparation and consumption of the 3 rounds of coffee (small cups thankfully) and always concluding with long and formal good-byes.  (Question: How will coffee ceremony change how you host others in your American home?)

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church…

We were awakened several early mornings by the prayers from one of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches piped across town by loudspeaker. That and the visits to two of Ethiopia’s most holy sites: Axum and Lallibela gave us a little insight into this mysterious and ancient Christian Church, a most non-western expression of African Christianity. We met devout and devoted Ethiopian Orthodox followers and experienced the pervasiveness of the icons and observances of the faith in Tigray.

However, our opportunity to worship with the Ds’at the English Mass at the Catholic Church near their home at the Italian Don Bosco Mission was something we shall never forget. The devotion and the kindness of the Sisters who greeted us after the service and their expressions of gratitude for Daniel and Danielle were heartwarming for us. Hearing and joining in on the liturgy spoken in English but with so many accents: Ethiopian, Colombian, Italian, Indian, Northeastern Ohioan, and Hoosier, profoundly communicated the breadth and scope of the Body of Christ.

“In this rock I will build my church”

A highlight was our trip to Lalibela. After being shown many of Daniel and Danielle’s favorite places it was fun to experience with them something they had longed to see: the stunning and unbelievable 900 year-old rock hewn churches. In trying to describe these rock-cut structures one understands frustration felt by the 16th century Portuguese priest who struggled with how to describe the churches only to put in his journal that he should stop writing because no one will believe his description of Lalibela.

What once was solid rock is now a chapel with high ceilings and windows, rooms and hallways, archways and doorways. There is a line from the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George, where the artist George Seurat comments on the artistic process saying, “Look - I made a hat where there never was a hat.” King Lallibela, served by as many as 40,000 people hewing churches out of rock (and aided, legend has it, by angels), could have said, “Look, we made a space (a sanctuary)  where there was no space, only solid stone.” Ten days later Debbie and I would stare up from the base of a rock to see the abbey of Le Mont Saint Michel on the western coast of Normandy admiring the most famous church built on a rock. Other than the prepositional difference, the similarities between the two churches are striking: “constructed” at nearly the same time, both inspired by angels, both unimaginable today as to how they were made, for a thousand years a place of pilgrimage and still to this day a place of worship.

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbor.” – G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

Readers of their blog will know that Daniel and Danielle have a close and abiding relationship with their neighbors: Girimkil, his wife Misilal, and children Sammy, Luam, Teddy, and little Meron. I am sure they would say the Girimkil family was heaven sent. I have no doubt Girimkil would say and has said that D and D were a gift from God to his family.

On Father’s Day Daniel and Danielle prepared doro watt, traditionally a meal for a feast, and invited the Girimkils to join us. It was our most amazing Ethiopian meal. Girimkil declared the fast season they were observing would be temporarily broken in celebration of our visit.  The most unique Father’s Day dinner ever was a wonderful time for the Luttrulls and Girimkils. The Girimkils have next to nothing in the way of material possessions but they are rich in the love they have for each other.

Miscellaneous Memories

Watching World Cup games at crowded Adwa caf├ęs; the crazy Bajaj (3 wheeled motorized rickshaw taxis) rides; hearing hyenas at night; D and D baking delicious red velvet cake and cherry pie without an oven; eating shekla tibs (yum!), special ful, cactus fruit and lots and lots of injera; a frightening and thrilling taxi ride through congested Addis Ababa streets, dodging buses, vans, motorcycles and bulls.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Meron’s First Bunna Ceremony

Once upon a time, a few months ago, my best Ethiopian friend (age 5) performed for me her very first coffee ceremony.

She and I had been playing in the yard—some confusing game involving a badminton racket and tons of bougainvillea flower petals. I somehow had to catch the petals with the racket as she quickly brushed them off a wooden bench, onto the ground, cackling at her victory.

Then she said, “Wait,” or, “Sinahee, Danayit.”

So I waited. She’d disappear and come back, and disappear and come back. And one piece of coffee ceremony material at a time, she kept returning to me: two bunna cups, one tray for cups, one stove holding red coals—to my dismay and attempted intervention, then: “Danayit, jebinaki hazi.” She told me to go get my jebina (coffee pot) from my house.

We reconvened in the abandoned garage, each of us holding a jebina. “Aydalin,” she said—I don’t want it. Now, apparently, she wanted to use her mother’s. I returned mine to the house.

When I came back to our child’s-tea-party-becomes-coffee-party and walked past her fanning the flames, I smelled coffee. I looked back at her in wonder. I thought this was pretend. I thought she thought it was pretend.

My limited powers of deduction soon had me realize that her mother Misilal had given Meron the day’s leftover brew, so that she and I could enjoy it together.

Soon Girimkil joined us, beaming. Clapping. Praising his daughter. He drank beside me, as Meron carefully brought us our full, steaming cups. “My family, drama. Like Cosby,” he said.

“Oh yes,” I said. “You are right.”

Then Misilal came, and Sammy came, and we all watched as our five year old performed her first Ethiopian rite of passage. The bunna was delicious, and we were proud.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

When In Need of a Birthday Dessert

We bring the pumpkin back from market. We puree it with the back of a wooden spoon. From the peeling to the bagging, this takes about 3 hours.

We fetch the milk from the lady who has cows. We pasteurize it on our stove. Then we evaporate it down by half. From the teat to the batter, this takes about 3 hours.

We grind our nutmeg and ginger with an iron rod in a hollowed-out log.

The eggs come from local chickens, acquired one by one from the oldest lady in the world and her temperamental hen. With each purchase come three “Italian-style” kisses on each cheek.

We bake it for two hours on the stovetop, in a pan within a pan—if the electricity remains steady.

And that, my friends, is a pumpkin pie made from scratch.

Note: Next month we’ll have an oven and a grocery store full of limitless goods. Naturally, we’re excited. But baking will never again be such an accomplishment, such a sport, such an absolute talented, magical wonder.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


 It happened!

Even though the principal didn’t come with the keys so we could give chairs to our audience, 8 of the 9 participants did show up, and we had an audience of 22. I feared even those 8 wouldn’t come. We had our Close Of Service Conference at the beautiful Lake Langano all last week, returning Friday—a no-school day, because of pending national exams. The tri-school final spelling bee was scheduled for the next day, Saturday. With no phone numbers of my students, I had no way of reminding them to come.

But come they did. Ammanuel was dressed in his best, corduroys and a dress shirt, and he came with seven of his tiny friends, ready to cheer him on. Daniel and Yared (my most active English teacher) quizzed the contestants beforehand as we waited for the participants to trickle in. Daniel reported back to me: They know all the words.

To solve the no-chair fiasco, my students helped Daniel and Yared carry all the benches and desks from the school’s outdoor cafe—the Ethiopian version of a teacher’s lounge, manned for coffee and tea-brewing by sweet Rehma and her four-year-old, Nora (whose favorite toy is the latch on my purse).

Sights: Medhin (grade 2) beaming after each word she spelled right, after each 6th grade student she eliminated; she kept bringing her hand to her mouth to cover her teeth that couldn’t help but show themselves as she smiled with pride, joy. Yared and Daniel smiling, shaking their heads—impressed. The school guard herding two wandering goats behind the audience, as I wondered Has there ever been such a backdrop for a bee? The kids putting their heads and limbs under the outdoor faucet after the bee—it was hot.

Sounds: Applause after each correctly-spelled word. Muruts, in the audience, saying “yes” in agreement with the sample sentences; for example—my reading “Flavor. My favorite flavor of gum is banana”—and Muruts saying, “Yes” like an old man in church.

Eventually only four were standing—Frezgi, Medhin, Nahom, and Ammanuel. Everything I threw at them—gorgeous, double, maximum, precious, delightful, incredible, necessary—they hit out of the park. When I read the 100th and final word (transportation), and Ammanuel spelled it correctly—I looked into the audience and asked Daniel what to do: I wasn’t prepared for them to know all 100. I gave them four more rounds of repeats, and they remained standing.

And so, we had four first place winners. It was a bee.

Contestants standing with their prizes: storybooks, pencils, certificates, and candy. Clockwise from top left: Merhawit S., Merhawit Z., Tekle H., Medhin, Frezgi, Ammanuel, Nahom, Tekle G.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Spelling a-n-e-c-d-o-t-e

Spelling bees are my students’ favorite English Club activity. Most probably because chocolate is involved. When I say, “widideer” (competition), you should see their faces. You really should.

We have bees about 4-5 times each school year. I come to class with the spelling list, and they have one to two weeks to study the words. On the day of the bee, they come back as experts, dictionaries. My students are transformed to geniuses as they’re spelling “precious” or “transportation” in their third language.

And I’m always impressed. I get a kick out of Adahanum’s antics—the nervous crossing of himself before he receives his word. Tekle Gebrealife’s determined concentration as he feverishly summons his word.

They memorize their 50 words beautifully. Most often, especially at Maria Luisa School for the Blind (home to my most excellent, aspiring spellers), I have to go through the list at least twice, eventually resorting to words off the top of my head—because nothing can shake them. They know the list by heart. We’ve had several two-man standoffs at Maria Luisa, often between my girls Merhawit and Medhin. Medhin is a rock.

Distributing the word list to my Maria Luisa students usually takes a full class period. They each have their Braille tablet, and I dictate each word, spelling them aloud several times. Yesterday our class was interrupted by a howling thunderstorm. (Rainy season arrived in all her glory last week, and we are loving every minute.) In an American classroom, the students can hear the teacher over the rain. But our classrooms are single rooms in outdoor compounds; to get to your next class, you have to go out in the yard. Tin roofs, mud walls, and you can’t hear a thing over Mama Nature’s drumming. So, dictating the new words in the way a mother would shout over her teenage son’s music, I hovered over my students, yelling the spellings over them, over the rain.

This year, to end my service right—in a way that my fourth-grade finalist self would be proud—I’m organizing a town-wide spelling bee.

Round One. I gave my three English Clubs at my schools in town the list of 50 words. They had only one week to learn them: we’re in a time-crunch, thanks to the month of Miyaziya (April)’s 800 holidays that kept canceling at least one of my clubs per week. Time-crunch be damned, they memorized those words.

Tekle is a third-grade boy, living far from his family and village so that he can attend a boarding school designed for students like him, students with visual impairments. Tekle is one of my most enthusiastic students. After a three-week break when they went home to their villages for Easter, I returned for English Club. When I said, “Grab your Braille, we’re going to have a widideer,” Tekle Woooooooooooo!ed and ran all the way to his dorm room. He always escorts me to the gate after class, to talk about the weather, ask about my family, and tell me how much he loved the lesson, how much he loves the song Father Abraham and will we sing it again next week?

Tuesday was Adwa Town Spelling Bee Round One: Adwa School.
Wednesday was ATSBee Round One: Soloda School.
Thursday (yesterday) was ATSBee Round One: Maria Luisa School.
The three winning students from each school moved on to Round Two, where they received 50 new words—making a total of 100 words to study for the main bee two weeks from now. Nine students will gather on Soloda School’s outdoor stage on the last Saturday in May (God-and-Principals-willing) to compete in front of parents and friends. I’m already working on the special certificates.

We pause for a definition of God-and-Principals-willing: An in-depth program will be supported from day one. Nods, yeses, of courses, Why not?s. But two days before the program you’ve worked so hard to organize, the person you’ve been planning with will say, Oh no, we can’t do it that day. Not possible. There’s another program, or a holiday we didn’t mention, or a need for 500 birr to provide coffee and fried bread to all the guests. This is the story of so many Peace Corps Ethiopia volunteers’ service—and it makes quality work an incredible challenge. It is often culturally inappropriate to deny someone’s request, so that no feelings are hurt, no dreams are crushed. Instead, you say yes, yes, yes, but you don’t show up, or you don’t do what you agreed to do. It’s just a slower, more complicated and delayed (and for the American, crueler and more aggravating) way of saying no. I didn’t want this issue to keep me from planning the spelling bee extraordinaire, though. So each time I advertise the competition, or tell my participants the date and time, I say, Maybe. Maybe it won’t work, but maybe it will.

But the maybes shouldn’t matter to Medhin, Merhawit, or Tekle. They’re learning several words for the competition, and they’re killing it.

Which brings us to our a-n-e-c-d-o-t-e.

Yesterday, during Round One of our bee, I gave Tekle the word “thirty.” Below is what followed:

TEKLE:  Thirty? Number thirty?
DANAYT (me): Yes, thirty. Thir-ty.
TEKLE:  Okay, teacher. Number thirty. O-x-y-g...
STUDENTS: (giggle)
DANAYT: (in shock, lots of hesitating) Wait. Tekle. Oxygen? Why...Um. Was oxygen number thirty on the list?
STUDENTS: (giggle, nod)
TEKLE: Yes, my teacher.
DANAYT: Number thirty? You mean you memorized where the words were on the list? The words and their numbers?
TEKLE: Yes, teacher. Excuse me. Thirty. T-H-I-R-T-Y.
DANAYT:  Tekle, I think you are a genius.

And we moved on to give Abrehat the word “opposite.”

After the storm, I sloshed home in tan puddles to get Round One’s list. Part of me didn’t want to check, in case he was wrong. But there it was.
30. oxygen

Monday, May 12, 2014

Corresponding with Indiana Classrooms

Highlight: Ethiopian Names

Does it hurt to talk in your language?

Do you ever get to ride a camel in Ethiopia? We were debating on if we would ask that question.

Does your time run diffrent then ours? How?

I have some ideas of how you can celebrate Thanksgiving. If you take straw or grass you can make manicans of your family. You could also take that type of bread you eat with every meal (injera) and use it as a pie crust and use berrys instead of pumpkin to make a pie.

Wanna come over to my house and watch my dog, Diamond?

In response to our Peace Corps challenge:

Dear luttrulls,

I do not et wif my fegers. I can not stop wochin teve. I wil not woch clos wif my hans. I haf fod in my fijerader.

Dear luttrulls,

I will eat with my hands. Will I dance like a etheopean?...Yes! I play baseball! do you? we have Spring now! In etheopea what tempetsher is it?

We sent an Ethiopian birr note, and pointed out the unknown shepherd boy on its front. We asked, “Who would you put on the dollar?”:

I no who can be on The Doller. you can. you are a good prsen. you can be on The doller. you are good at doinG good. But Juseu spos to be on. you are nice. your niceer Then a pig. you are nice. I Love your wlord. can we go To your wlord.

Writing letters to classes in America has been one of our greatest delights these past two years. Our sister Lindsay and our friends Amy and Kyle have graciously participated in Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program. Their Kindergarten, first grade, and fourth grade classes have been exchanging letters (or drawings) with us.

Our aim, and the aim of this program, is to help open young Americans’ minds to different cultures and lifestyles around the world. We began our correspondence with the fourth graders this year by explaining:

Every country has its own unique culture. By the end of this year, you will be experts on Ethiopian culture—and hopefully will have learned about your own culture in Midwest America at the same time. For example, it is American culture to shake someone’s right hand when you meet him for the first time. But when you meet a new person in Ethiopia, you support your right elbow with your left hand while shaking with the right. If he is a friend, you will also bump your right shoulders together when shaking hands. And the longer it has been since you’ve seen him, or the closer friends that you are, you bump your shoulders lots of times. (Can you try this?)

In the meantime, we’re learning from them too.

More than once we’ve been bogged down with the difficulties and frustrations that come from living abroad; yet when we sit down that same day to write answers to their curious questions, we get our refueling. When we explain coffee ceremonies, or the strange calendar, or how the clock works here, or the holiday Meskel—we’re reminded of all the enjoyable, unique aspects of our Ethiopian lives that we’ll have trouble parting with.

These students help keep the culture fresh for us.

There are other perks—like the paper Christmas tree we have hanging in our living room this month. The fourth graders each made us an ornament with one large Christmas tree, because they didn’t want us to go without one. The package took six months to get to us, so we’re having Christmas in May.

Letter 6: January 1, 2014

Dear Mrs. Luttrull’s class,

            Happy New Year! We hope you had a fun and restful holiday. As you already know, Ethiopians do not share our New Year, but celebrate on the first of their own calendar, in September. Their calendar isn’t their only form of time-keeping that’s different from ours and the rest of the world. Their clock is different too!
            Because the sun rises at 6 AM, that’s when Ethiopians start their clock; and they call 6:00, 12:00. So 7 AM is 1:00, 8 AM is 2:00, and so on. It’s very strange to look at a public clock at noon here and the clock reads 6:00. This took Danielle awhile to get used to, but then Daniel explained to her that it’s only a math problem. All we have to do is add or subtract 6 hours to whatever time it is on our watch to know what time it is in Ethiopian time, or Habesha time. As Americans, we call ourselves Americans. Ethiopians call themselves Habesha; so the Ethiopian calendar is called the Habesha calendar, and Ethiopian time is called Habesha time. Now you’ve learned a new and interesting word!
            Telling time here is doubly difficult for the two of us because when someone asks us what time it is in Tigrigna, we have to do two things after looking at our watch. First, we have to think what time it is in Habesha time, then we have to translate the number to Tigrigna. For example, if our neighbor Gebre Michael asks me, “Kinday saat iyu?”—What time is it?, and my watch says it’s 2PM, this is what I do. I add 6 and know it’s 8:00 Habesha time. Then I think of how to say eight in Tigrigna: shomenta. Isn’t that interesting?
            Gebre Michael’s name literally means, “Servant of Michael.” Every Habesha name has a literal meaning. Our friend Tirsit told us that because of this, some parents give their children names that are full sentences. For example, if a girl’s name is Abeba Mekele Haddush, this translates to, “Flower grows anew.” Can you imagine if your first name was Flower, your middle name Grows, and your last name New? They don’t give middle names here, though. You have a first name, and your last name is your father’s name. Many times people ask us, “What is your father’s name?” and what they mean is, “What is your last name?” So Daniel could say either, “Daniel James,” or “Daniel Luttrull.” So Gebre Michael’s daughter’s name is Luwam Gebre Michael. When she receives a diploma or certificate, though, she will need a third name, even though she has no middle name. So then she adds her paternal grandfather’s name at the end, making her full name Luwam Gebre Michael Mebratom.
            What would your name be if you lived in Ethiopia? Danielle’s would be Danielle Charles Charles and Daniel’s would be Daniel James James. As you can imagine, then, juniors aren’t common here. Fathers don’t name their sons after themselves because then their sons would have the same name twice, like Dawit Dawit. Another interesting part of this system is that husbands and wives and their children have different last names, since a husband and wife don’t share a father. Here is a list of some common Habesha names and their meanings. You can combine a name from the first column with one from the second to make a complete and proper name phrase.

            Haile: Power of                                     Selassie: the Trinity
            Mulu: Full of                                         Igzyaber: God
            Gebre: Servant of                                  Berhane: Light
            Wala: Son of                                         Gabriel/Michael
                                                                          Mariam: Mary
                                                                          Meskel: the Cross
                                                                          Heywot: Life
                                                                          Kidan: Saints

            We’re wishing you the best in 2014,
            Daniel and Danielle

Shortly after receiving this letter, Mrs. Luttrull’s class sent us letters with great questions like What is your favorite animal there, and why? (Danielle, hyena; Daniel, Gelada baboon). One group of her students signed with their Ethiopian names (first name, father’s name, grandfather’s name). Reading the Ethiopian versions of their names gave us the same sort of satisfaction as when we read this closing paragraph from one of her students two Thanksgivings ago:

I think that you can celebrate in these few ways. Number one you can have coffee and a fire. Number two you can make a cornucopia with injera stuffed with different foods. Number three you can eat doro watt around a table like a feast. If you like the ideas, you’ll really want a Thanksgiving!

A fourth grade Indiana girl using the word doro watt! Injera, too, is a part of her vocabulary now. She may even remember the Ethiopian coffee ceremony when watching her parents drink coffee on Saturday mornings.

To the two of us, who can’t imagine leaving coffee ceremonies or doro watt behind us forever—(so just wait and see how many kilos of berbere we can pack into one suitcase)—knowing that some Americans know about this culture alongside us, is important. Ethiopia is a part of us now. And we’re happy to be spreading the word, the curiosity.

A special thanks to Mrs. Luttrull’s class of 2012-2013: A generous, creative group of five students donated and shipped to us a box full of school supplies (story books, notebooks, fun pencils/pens/erasers, Post-it notes, colored paper, glue sticks), bouncy balls and small toys, new socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste and more! They came up with the idea on their own, and accomplished it. Without knowing it, they helped kick off my Reading Raffle rewards program at three school libraries in town, by providing me with the prizes. Just two weeks ago I held my monthly raffle at Adwa school; we had 67 books read in April! To date, 133 readers have participated in this program, and 229 books have been read.

Furthering the subject of our January letter, here are several more names you’d hear in our town. In bold are our favorites, in case we’re ever in the market for Ethiopian middle names:

Freweyni   Guesh   Makda   Tekaste   Adhanom   Mikias   Fikadu  Muuz   Kissanet   Mulugeta   Senayit   Kalkidan   Eyob   Binyam   Betelehem   Merhawit   Fisseha   Bereket   Kifle   Yordanos   Tesfay   Emebet   Nahom   Lisan   Dagnew   Haben   Fierdos   Birzaf   Tekle   Melat   Gidey   Mamit   Yebralem   Girma   Girmawit   Egzaharia   Winta   Luel   Leteberhan   Rahel   Gidena   Eden   Frezgi   Natnael   Tirhas   Maarg   Zayt   Milion   Roza   Seble   Lidya   Abel   Eyerusalem   Filimon   Bisirat   Tsega   Kibrom   Yisak   Efrem   Amanuel   Yarid   Saba   Tedros   Shewit   Kidey   Bilal   Seifu   Zenawi   Shishay   Negasi   Semrawit   Kasahun   Medhin   Lemlem  Robel   Weyni

And some more, whose meanings we know:

Netsanet (Independence)
Nigusay (My King)
Nigisti (Queen)  
Fyori (Flower)
Almaz (Silver)
Zinab (Rain)
Selamawit (Peaceful)
Alemsahay (Light of the World)
Mebrit (Light)
Tena (Health)
Haftom (Rich man)
Hagos (Happiness)
Ba’ab (From God)
Haddush (New)
Lela (Another)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Our sitemate Lauren and I had a Girls’ Club that met every Sunday in my living room. We hosted female-empowerment discussions, activities, and crafts, one of my favorites being our Describe Yourself! game, with Amharic translations:

Mahlet is productive, caring, determined, supportive, fearless, kind, courageous, successful, intelligent, helpful, trustworthy, knowledgeable, patient, honorable, and a leader.

(Second favorite lesson = listening to Aretha Franklin’s "Respect," and discussing the message. In fact, if you have this song on your itunes, go ahead and play it while you read on.)

Because of schedule conflicts, translation pressures, the far walking-distance the girls on the other side of town had to travel (and in the hot weather), our club gradually stopped meeting.

A few months later: Just when I thought I couldn’t feel more anguish as a woman, every Peace Corps Ethiopia volunteer was given a cute, free tote-bag filled with Yegna stickers, Yegna pamphlets, and a flashdrive chock-full of Yegna material.

Meet Yegna.






(“Yegna” means “Ours” in Amharic.)

What I’d call the Ethiopian but role-model version of the Spice Girls. As a 5th grader, I knew Sporty Spice was my equivalent. I was a tomboy, prouder of my skills as a second baseman and clean-up batter than I was of my grades or fashion sense. I remember taking my Spice Girls CD-insert to the hairdresser’s, pointing to Sporty Spice, and asking for her exact haircut. Along with my Backstreet Boys mini-books (each page a miniature fact sheet of each band member’s birthday, favorite meal, middle name, and hometown), I had one for the Spice Girls as well. I kept these in my school desk, somewhere near my pencil case and hidden NanoPet. At Recess and lunch, my friends and I would quiz each other from all of our mini-books.

Girls can make anyone their role models. But Lemlem is far worthier of influencing young girls than, say, Baby Spice.

Lemlem is a village girl. She tends her sick mother, does all the household chores, helps herd the cattle, raise her two younger brothers, and attends school to boot. Her father will remove her from school if she can’t balance all her responsibilities perfectly. How will Lemlem handle the pressures of getting an education and also managing her household?

Here’s how we find out:

Yegna, a real Ethiopian girls’ band, is also a fictional radio drama, following the different lives, struggles, and decisions of these five strong, beautiful girls—in order to address the pressing issues of what it’s like to be a young girl growing up in Ethiopia. Each one has her own separate and relatable story. (Each drama is followed by a talk-show, discussing the episode.)

So Lauren and I started our Girls’ Club back up. Every Saturday morning at 11:30, 14 girls in our community (grades 6-10) come to my living room, and we eat popcorn and cookies and listen to these dramas in Amharic, afterward discussing what we learn from them in Tigrigna and English. Fixing our previous mistakes, this time we chose girls who live closer to my home (girls from my Soloda English Club and also my neighbors). Betty, a 10th grader, helps us with translation.

We’re taking the negative energy that builds up within us each week, when we feel degraded or objectified, and we’re turning it in a positive direction. We’re reminding Milyon, Betty, Firktuna, Makda, Birkti, Merhawit, Luwam G. and Luwam T., Netsanet, Tsege, Tsege-Berhan, Tsegareda and Seble how strong and gobez (brilliant) they are, because they’re not told it enough. We’re hoping to help shift how girls are viewed, and how they view themselves, in our Ethiopian towns. (Lauren has a second Yegna program at the main high school in town, reaching a much larger audience of both male and female students.)

The rest of the world should follow in the footsteps of the creators of this band and program, GirlHub (a collaboration between Nike Foundation and the UK Department for International Development) and start giving our future female generations better role models. Fifteen years from now, I’d rather hand my daughter the CD-insert of Yegna than I would Katie Perry or Miley Cyrus. Here’s something in which America would benefit in following Ethiopia’s lead.

The Yegna radio program is an incredibly practical, attractive and creative way to combat gender-based violence and address issues like early/forced marriage, dropping out of school, and teen pregnancy in Ethiopia. This is doing something for Ethiopian girls.

Check out Yegna’s great music video for their song “Abet”—(which is the Amharic response when you’re summoned). Read the powerful English translation below the video.

But before you do, you should know that the following is a common sight in classrooms, meeting rooms, and language centers in big towns and small towns across Ethiopia:

A teenage girl is called on to present in front of the class. She stares at her feet, she stares at the wall, she makes no eye contact with anyone. She giggles, she closes her eyes. Her right hand alternates from covering her eyes to covering her mouth, while she stands in paralyzing fear and silence for up to three minutes. The air has been sucked out of the room, and you, back there in your seat, are nearly trembling for her.

We see this all the time. Ours is a town of 60,000—not a village—and we see this all the time. A paralyzing shyness that was once valued by the social norm. Having this scene in your mind is important, I think, when you hear Mimi sing, We have stood up! We have decided! See us—here—we have come! How might these words of confidence fall on the ears of the many teenage girls I just described? What sort of growth may come from such powerful seeds?

Thank you, Yegna. Thank you, GirlHub.

Video of Abet.

English translation of Abet:

Lemlem: “Abet!” Say “Abet to me,” hear me—Abet—I have a message—Abet in this house!
Mimi: “Abet!” Say “Abet to me,” hear me—Abet—I have a message—Abet in this house!
Melat: “Abet!” Say “Abet to us,” hear us—Abet—We have a message—We have a message about us!

Melat and girls: Abet—Ezih bet! (Call and response: Hello! In this house!)

She is as a sister and a mother
As a wife—we should not be silent or take her for granted.
While one woman holds three lives
With love, supporting each other
Working together with understanding
Let us be one and live in joy
Let’s not be separated. Adera!*
* Adera is a pleading and heavy word to “promise/take care”

Mimi and girls: Let’s not be separated. Adera!

Oh—let’s go out—Yay!—with our heads high
Oh—let’s show them—Ah!—that we can!
Let’s show our talent, capacity, and our wisdom
Let the world be amazed—let’s come together
Let us live together in love
People, let’s not be separated. Adera!

Mimi and girls: Let’s not be separated. Adera!

Melat and girls: Abet—Ezih bet! (Call and response: Hello! In this house!)

Who you underestimate/look down upon will will one day
leave you naked
Advise him and wake him up and advise him
Let him respect me—let me respect him—Let’s not look down on each other
Whenever, wherever, love shall win! Wa!*
*Wa! is a warning.

feat. Haile Roots:
Why should I lose her and be sad and hurt
While she has been by my side, my support in this world?
I don’t want to see her down and depressed because
she can’t find someone to support her

While I could be there by her side to support her
I have passed her by so many times pretending like I can’t see her [her needs]
But now it’s enough—let me stand by her side
For the world is not complete without her
Why should I lose her and be sad and hurt
While she has been by my side, my support in this world?

We have stood up! We have decided! See us—here—we have come!

We’ve had enough of the past! We are rising today!

We have been looked down upon in the past
People have underestimated, undermined us
What we have had to endure—we do not like
We have risen today, we have decided
We carry love, skill, and hope in our hands!

Abet—Ezih bet! (Call and response: Hello! In this house!)

Haile Roots:
Why should I lose her and be sad and hurt
While she has been by my side, my support in this world?