cheek kisses










From early July…

My students are amazing. When I get to school they are lined up outside my classroom door waiting anxiously. There is pushing to get in but the older students help me read the names of the kids in my class and ensure that the right students are getting in. Every day there are new students, some even who’ve heard about us and travelled from other villages. My students know I always let in as many new students as will fit in the classroom. They shove in four to a two-person desk and make the best of the broken ones to allow as many students in as possible. As I prepare the chalkboard they sit silently, and when I begin class they stand to greet me. Outside kids throw rocks at the broken windows and yell into the classroom. My students’ attention is not broken. Other kids bang on the classroom door, eventually pushing hard enough to move the rock I have used as a barricade and tumbling inside. Unfazed, a few students calmly rise and shove them back outside, sliding the rock back in place. It seems these are the learning conditions they are used to.

Each day that I teach is better than the previous. A comfort settled in between my students and me that allows me to joke and make faces, to discipline and chastise, to congratulate and hug. Whereas on the first day of school I felt nailed to a spot on the floor, hands glued to my chalk and eraser, I am now confident imitating the verb “to skip” across the room, having conversations with myself as two characters, and shouting “THURRRRR” over the rows of students, lips pushed open wide to show how to pronounce Thursday and nose scrunched up for effect. The students have also loosened up. They are learning how to respond to open-ended questions without answers to choose from, to use their imagination, to answer a question wrong just for the sake of trying, to take risks and laugh at their mistakes.

At the end of every class I stand by the door to shake hands with every student as they leave. About a week in the students adopted the more affectionate greeting that’s more like a hug. Today as Biftu approached me she looked extra smiley and bashful. When I grabbed her hand she suddenly lunged in, touching her small lips to my cheek, and hurried away into the protective circle of her giggling friends. Then it was all cheek kisses for everyone.


the servant

Well, I never received a host family, and it seems we will be staying put for the rest of the trip– not that I’m complaining. I am living with the Donald Trump of Haramaya. The first time I went out with him we took a Bajaaj (open taxi) for the equivalent of about two city blocks, got gaping stares and free qat from the market, and walked through the building he is having constructed “downtown.” He has a wife and four children. The way I just presented this family, I realize, seems awfully sexist. But that’s how they see things.


His children are wonderful, but my favorite child in the house is the servant, Mahdi. Often when I’m playing with the children I see him pause and watch from a distance. Sometimes I can talk with him. He is nine years old and very intelligent. When I teach him he listens intently and understands quickly.
The other day I allowed each child to listen to my CD player. When I tried to pass a headphone to Mahdi, the other children looked at each other and shook their heads at me as he sheeped away. I made him take a turn. A smile spread across his face, shy at first, but unstoppable. He tapped his fingers and nodded his head to the beat (BSS), appreciating it so much more than the others.


My host mother was calling him. Suddenly his movements stopped. He yanked the headphone out of his ear. Brought back to reality, he looked at me wide-eyed, as if to see how I was judging him for his lapse in servitude.


And he snapped to his feet, off to serve my host mother.

The servants here live in total subservience to the families they serve. One night I woke up in the middle of the night overwhelmed with nausea. I ran outside toward the toilet but before I made it I threw up on the rocks behind the house. The host mother came out and screamed, “Malia” over and over until a girl came running outside. My host mother returned to bed and I watched as Malia fetched a bucket of water and scrubbed my puke. I tried to ask to help but my Oromo was not good enough and she wouldn’t have let me anyway. I felt horrible watching her do it.

My host siblings are sweet and loving, but it is hard to see their good fortune juxtaposed with Mahdi’s hard work. I watch them drop gum wrappers on the ground one minute, and I watch Mahdi pick them up the next. It is unfair, but it is economics. I cannot blame the family because Mahdi is lucky to have the job.

This is where I believe education must enter as an equalizer. As the system exists in Ethiopia, my host siblings will receive a good private education and go on to study at a university or become a wealthy qat exporter like their father. Mahdi will receive a poor public education and will probably continue to be a servant like his parents. The problem is accessibility.

first day of school

DSCN6092From June 22…

When I first arrived at school with the two other American volunteers, we had around fifty students following us and hundreds waiting for us. As we made our way to the director’s office it was like we were running through a pool of drying concrete. Every step through the swarming children took concentration to avoid stepping on tumbling bodies, and it only got harder as they flocked around us. After a few minutes we reached the door and a skinny old man came out with a whip. Shouting in Oromo, he slapped the children away from the door so we could enter.
Inside, I felt relieved when we shook hands with three business-suited administrators who looked like they could bring order to the chaos. In broken English, they asked how many students we could each teach. Hoping not to turn anyone away, we decided to first see how many students wanted to sign up. We were given blank sheets of paper and the green light. It was up to us to coordinate the registration of thousands of Oromo children, of whom we could only reasonably teach a maximum of 500 among the three of us.

We stepped back out into the chaos. Monika took grades 1-4, I took 5-6, and Sam took 7-8. Using the little Oromo we had learned, we tried to get the right students to follow each of us. I stopped on top of the front steps to one of the school buildings and was immediately surrounded. Students were pulling my hair, pinching my skin, screaming English phrases like, “Teacher! How are you? Are you fine?” and laughing hysterically. I found an advanced tenth grader whom I had met earlier to record names for me and tried to make the students form a line. That was absolutely impossible. Instead I physically pushed all the students off the steps and let them up one at a time to sign up. The students knew there would not be room for all of them. It became a battle of force as they shoved each other to get to the front. I had been choosing students from the front to let through to sign up (literally by raising my arm for a second), but I realized that I was selecting my students based on how strong or aggressive they were. I began reaching out my hand to students in the back to pull to the front. But how to choose? I made eye contact with ten students for every one that I could select. I never found a good system. I went on like that, changing my mind every few minutes about how to choose students. A few hours later I had registered 160 students and decided I had to stop. I would teach four classes of forty students every day.

I headed home with my students on my tail. On the path to the school we must cross a river by stepping on small rocks that poke out of the water. The water is blood-red—from animal blood. Crossing that river on the tedious rocks with students jostling me on all sides was like a horrible Frogger-induced nightmare. Fortunately I made it across and finally arrived at home where I left the students yelling at me from behind the front gate.


real talk

Today I saw a baboon scamper down from a rooftop to a street-side fruit shop, steal a mango, and scamper back up.


Because of the wide variety of cultures, values and lifestyles in America, I think we’ve come to assume that if something can happen, it will happen. This makes the apparent lack of regulation here very scary to Americans. My host father read my Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia today and said that it makes Ethiopia seem much scarier than it is. And it is true. Since being here I’ve learned that the lack of safety restrictions from the top is made up for by the restrictions the culture places on itself. For example, when I first arrived I would hold my breath and look down every time I passed someone holding a gun. Someone would walk by carrying a scythe (big curved knife for agriculture) and I would feel a sharp pain of anticipation in my neck. Eventually I got used to the idea that people have the ability to hurt me all the time, but they don’t. This idea takes getting used to because it demands great trust in people—a trust we don’t have in America. I think it is because in America we don’t know each other the way they do here. Even if you’ve never met someone here, you share cultural values that unite you. Now when I pass someone on the street with a scythe I greet them and trust that I will pass in peace.



I am becoming very aware of my needs. As I am detached from everything that I am accustomed to having meet my needs, I realize what those needs are. I feel that apart from physical needs, every other need can be satisfied by people. The only hard part about being here is that I miss the people in my life. As I grow to love the people here I feel much happier here. I am finding that everything I have invested in during my life is replaceable. This is a hard realization because it makes me feel that relationships I have built are insignificant. But I am happy that this realization comes with another—that a relationship’s significance is not dependent on its duration. That my relationships from home are replaceable here does not make those relationships less significant. I have to view the relationship in the context of its time and place. Right now, there are other relationships becoming significant to me, but every relationship left at home is still significant in a different time and place. What the significance of the relationship does depend on is its depth. The more developed a relationship is the more it means to me. This makes it hard to be here away from the relationships I have developed. But with experience and conversation new relationships are becoming a bigger part of me. When I leave, I will leave the depth of the relationship in this time and place, but I will forever be affected by the people I bonded with.

unity of community

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

I met a 17-year-old name Tuji who was puzzled about why students in America leave their homes to go to college. He said he could never imagine leaving his community to go to school. I told him that students like to go to the university that teachers their subject of interest best. It was apparent that we have different values. I do greatly value my community and I would like to feel like it is not really my decision to leave, but really it is. I made the judgment that my education is more important to me than my community—a judgment that Tuji could not understand making.

In America we are taught in economics never to leave any “money on the table.” This metaphor teaches us that when there is a positive economic transaction to be made, it should be made. Ethiopians act on this principle as well, just as any human culture would. The difference between American economics and Ethiopian economics is that Americans take the metaphor more literally. When there is money to be made, we make it. But this economics principle is much deeper. An economic exchange is not an exchange of money, but an exchange of value. This is a distinction Americans often fail to make. Sometimes there are situations when an experience that generates no money has more value than an experience that does. For example, going to a top college in your field away from your community is directly correlated with greater income. Therefore, many Americans move away for college. Ethiopians, however, place a greater value on community than they do on the increased income from which they could benefit.

Education is not the only income opportunity lost to the value of community. Even in the marketplace opportunities for profit are let go in the name of community. In America, community is used economically only as a means to further personal economic success. Here, personal gains are compromised for the community. In a market in Harar I walked by about 20 vendors sitting in a row selling beats at the same price. If a customer decides not to buy because the price is too high, no vendor will lower the price, even if the customer walks away. The vendors will subsequently miss out on economic gains in order to retain good relations with the other vendors. Taxi drivers also lose opportunities for profit in order to help the community. As I drove in a taxi (with open sides) through Haramaya, many people hopped on and off while it was moving for no price. Only the person to hale the taxi must pay and anyone else who can fit can ride free.

American culture could learn something here. While Ethiopians will place community above education, money, food, and basic needs, many Americans fail to place it above amusement. We make money to buy amusement when we could instead leave the money and find free natural enjoyment in each other that outweighs the value of the money.