August ’09 – In Review

I’ve been back on this side of the Atlantic for about two weeks. I think that I should share some of the details of my latest trip. We made a lot of progress in such a short period of time. This work seems to go in spits and spurts. We will have delays and side tracks for months and then suddenly we’ll make huge progress very quickly. It can be frustrating and discouraging during those down times, but when things start moving it is very exciting.  

August was an exciting time. Although it was diminished somewhat by my attitude going into it. I wasn’t looking forward to this trip, mainly because it meant being separated from my growing little family. As they say, “attitude is everything”. My poor attitude made for one of the most difficult trips I’ve made, in spite of all that we accomplished.

Early in the year I was side tracked with Dawit. Then came the delays from the government and problems from individuals. Then suddenly, in July, all the problems seemed to vanish. The government actually helped us this time. The work was finally able to progress. So when I arrived at the beginning of August everything was in place. We went right to work.

I only spent two nights in the city, Addis Ababa, before we made the long drive down to Chencha. I was sick through the first day of travel, which was unpleasant to say the least. We broke the trip into two days, thank goodness. I don’t think I would’ve made it otherwise.

Our friends in Chencha were happy to see us again. However, they seemed most concerned about Jessica and Dawit and when they would get to see them. Joe and his family, and Nega stayed with me in Chencha  for 5 or 6 days before heading back to the city. For the next few weeks I would be the only “foringe” in town. There was no possibility of hiding in the crowd. I received constant attention. I did bump into a couple of Israeli tourists passing through town one day, but other than that all eyes were on me. By the end of my stay many of the kids would call me by name, which was a little more tolerable than the constant shouts of “foringe, foringe”.

The first couple of weeks drove me a little crazy. Some of the cultural differences can wear on those of us from the west. In the US if you want to buy something you just go and buy it, if you want to do something you just do it. In Ethiopia nothing is done without endless negotiation and discussion. To hire someone to do a simple job like digging a ditch takes about half a day of negotiation beforehand, then a full days work, then another half a day of negotiation afterward. The negotiations afterward were the strangest part to me. I thought that was what all that talk was about beforehand.

To buy the supplies for the buildings that we built took longer than doing the work. The “lumber yard” was a pile of saplings stacked beside a small, washed out dirt road (actually all the roads in Chencha are small, washed out dirt roads) that we found after a 3-4 mile walk. The “hardware store” was actually a series of small shops. One might have the saw and nails, another would have the hammer, and still another the tape measure and level. The long negotiations would take place at each stop.

I finally reached the breaking point. I couldn’t take any more of the idle chatting, of which I could understand little to none. I just went to the site and started to work. All I did was clean up debris from a large tree that had been heavily “pruned”, which entailed a young man climbing up a bamboo ladder and hacking off large limbs at random. I think this threw Tarekegn, the agricultural assistant and man in charge while I’m away, for a loop. In Ethiopia if you have education, money, or status you don’t perform menial tasks like picking up sticks. If you have education, money, or status you sit behind a big desk and negotiate with people all day.

Nega’s dad was quite proud of my labors. He is a farmer and a teacher. A teachers salary pays very little, so to feed his family he also farms. He’s been farming since before I was born. He is pushing 60 years old and he’s up at dawn and works until dusk. I would usually see him briefly in the morning and then in the evening I would find him washing up in front of the house. He would be asleep on the sofa before dinner was served. His hands are rough and worn from years of hard work.

The tree that I was cleaning up is called Cortch and it is covered in sharp thorns. I had no gloves so my hands took a lot of abuse. Each night Nega’s dad would ask to see my hands. He would smile at all the new cuts and gashes and say “gobez” or “toru saw”, which mean “good job” and “good man” respectively.

After this it seemed like I had at least some meaningful labor each day. We hired a couple of guys to build the guard house, but we built the chicken coop ourselves. I used the wood from the debris pile to make compost bins. We hired ladies to bring in straw, which they carried in huge bundles on their backs. We used this along with the leaves from the Cortch to make the compost. We started setting up the office. We put up a sign, bought furniture, and I spent a day wiring the outside lights and meeting room. We dug a trench and ran a water line to the site. Actually, we started digging the trench and then a few local guys were hired to finish it. The holes for planting apples were dug and the ladies carried cow manure from a nearby house to add to each hole. While all this was occurring the fence, made of woven bamboo, was slowly but surely closing it all in.

The fence was completed on the day that I left Chencha. I was sick again, worse than before so I didn’t actually get to see the finished product. In just a few weeks we had fenced the property, built a guard house and chicken coop, prepared everything for planting apples and veggies, set up an office, and laid out plans for the next six months. The people in the town were amazed at how much we were doing so quickly, even though at times I thought we were moving at a snails pace. This new project and the foringe that was working seemed to be the talk of the town.

I left Chencha in a big, hot, smelly, crowded bus doubled over from stomach cramps. The cramps were caused by the food I had eaten the night before. It was a new dish for me. I don’t remember the name, but it was simply boiled corn and fava beans. It was simple and plain so I ate a ton of it. The next morning after breakfast Misgana, Nega’s sister, asked me if I was having any abdominal pain. She then went on to inform me that the dish from the night before sometimes causes severe abdominal pain. It would’ve been nice to have had that little tidbit of knowledge before I gorged myself on the stuff. By 9:00 am I was feeling the effects. It then took all day just to get down the mountain and into a small hotel room in Arba Minch. The next day I flew back to Addis, my health restored after a good night sleep.

We had one more bit of traveling to do. We had a staff retreat in Debre Zeit. You can check the details of it on the TFC blog (Strategy).

I spent the rest of the trip, 4 or 5 days, relaxing and playing with the kids at Joe and Karyn’s house in Addis. The city was a filthy, swamp and I didn’t much feel like going out into it much. I also wouldn’t be seeing the kids or Joe and Karyn for a while so it was nice to just hang out with them some.

So there it is, my trip in a nutshell. I know that was hardly a nutshell. Good for you if you made it this far without falling asleep. I apologize for such a lengthy and tedious post, but I wanted to fill you in on everything. I’ll try to spice it up a bit more next time.


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