moving in


Photo by Brett Nadrich

Arrived in Haramaya yesterday. I’m still not certain who my host family will be (things are very unorganized) but for now i am staying with the richest family in Haramaya with the two other volunteers in my village in the house above. There’s no plumbing but sometimes electricity. The family has four young children and is very welcoming. Life is absolutely wonderful here.

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Notes from the day:

While riding in a taxi the driver took pictures of us on his phone surreptitiously while he drove and then sent them to his friends. As we rode down the street people tapped friends and said, “Foreenji,” for “white person.” News of our arrival preceded us everywhere we went. People touched our skin as we passed.



So much stimulation today. Coffee then more coffee then qat then soda then more coffee—all in just a couple of hours. Coffee here is the best in the world. Qat here is the best in the world.

Photo by Sam Weintraub

I have become so enthralled by analyzing the world around me that I have lost myself. I observe, observe, observe. The world is washing down my throat with such force that I cannot form any words or reactions.

Food here is better than anything I have ever had. I am worried about protein and vitamins though. I miss tofu like hell.


hello harar

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

My first night in Ethiopia was spent in Addis where I met the group of volunteers and enjoyed the local club scene. The next morning we took a van 10 hours east to Harar. There’s only one main road in Ethiopia, traversing the country east to west, so we made it to Harar without making one turn. When we would pass through towns, people would flock to the van to sell us local produce (like the bananas above).

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

We are in Harar three days for orientation. I went exploring today with Brett. We followed a back road into a small village and began talking to children in a mix of English and Oromo. After some time a few men came over and talked to us as well. They invited us to their home for coffee. I was a little nervous to go, but their whole family came out to greet us and they were very friendly. We went in and had injera as we spoke about our homes and cultures. Again in a mix of English, Oromo and laughter we managed to exchange complements and speak about Eddie Murphy, rap music, and Harar. Later we met some teenagers who also invited us to their home. We had shisha (hookah) that was the best I’ve ever had, and I’m learning to blow smoke rings! The hospitality here blows my mind.

I keep trying to jump to overarching conclusions based on my observations, but I just fumble around. I must observe longer. For now I will focus on what I know and as time passes those boundaries will expand naturally. They cannot be forced.

things i’ve learned

This is just a random compilation of things that have interested me here.

A little bit about politics in Ethiopia— The party in power runs on a platform of representing all ethnic groups in the country. 40% of Ethiopians are Oromo. However, only hand-picked Oromo are are accepted into the ruling party. Appointed positions are almost never Oromo, even in Harar, where Oromo heavily dominate. One of the grossest manifestations of this is in Harar, where the judges are mostly “Cecil Rhodes.” This is the code term for “colonial masters” (named after Rhodes from Rhodesia). Cecil Rhodes rule the town. They come from the northwest of the country and run the businesses and politics. The judges almost always rule harshly and unfairly against Oromos. Ethiopia does have elections, but the ruling party generates the results. The opposition party operates from the U.S. because they would be arrested here. People I talked to here estimate there to be at least 50,000 prisoners in Ethiopia incarcerated for nonviolent resistance to the ruling party. This is all very well hidden.

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

There aren’t enough spots in school for children who want them. The government only allows the top 20% of students to advance from 10th grade (via a test). 20% of those students make it to college. Almost all students who make it into college come from private schools. It is very hard for a child from a public school to do well enough on the tests to advance. Teachers at public schools are paid very poorly. A teacher must have a second job to make money to live on. Teachers teach in English, but many can barely speak it themselves.

There are many children who don’t want to go to school. The link between school and success  is not visible here. The most successful people are qat and coffee dealers, for which no education in necessary. Additionally, many of these who do have an education often move out of the country.

People think wearing condoms is silly. Some people believe condoms are infected with HIV. Others believe Allah will protect them from HIV.

Deforestation is a huge problem. Places that used to be coated in trees are now qat or coffee farms. Trees are used for construction. Cypress trees are used in every structure; you can’t go a block without seeing them being constructed. This is affecting rainfall, leading to drought. Electricity here depends on dams which depend on rainfall. The lack of rain also makes it hard to grow coffee. Many coffee farmers are switching to qat because it is much more profitable.

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Photo by Sam Weintraub

Many Ethiopians are friendly because they believe visitors are a test from God of their hospitality.

Ethiopian New Years is on September 11. After the attacks the FBI investigated Ethiopians who worked in the twin towers because they had all skipped work.


In O’Hare:

I had no idea how alienated I would feel so fast. This is the most alone I have ever been in my life. I know nobody here and I have no way to contact anybody I do know.

In Istanbul:

At first the businessmen were the most comforting things around me. Dressed in suits and carrying laptops they reminded me of security, comfort, structure. I could predict their movements and habits. I knew that I could relate to them on easy subjects like business, school, and daily life, while requiring very little thinking or feeling. The others puzzled me, and therefore scared me. But that is changing.

I’ve realized that I am not really alone when I am surrounded by people, no matter how different they are. Each person around me is familiar by virtue of being a person. There are certain things that I know about everyone around me. I know that they are capable of feeling empathy, and I know that if we could spend time together that we would grow together and feel empathy for each other. That this opportunity has not come does not make our bond non-existent. It simply requires faith.

How these bonds could and will develop, I don’t know. I’m not sure what common ground we will find, but I have faith that  we will find it. The common traits and experiences of humanity are enough. I can look at every person and picture them grieving, picture them screaming, picture them seething. I can picture them laughing, picture them celebrating, picture them proud. And I know we have shared many experiences and feelings. And that is enough. That is really enough.

On the flight into Istanbul I sat next to an accomplished Turkish mathematician. I haven’t taken a math class since high school and he had little interest in my own ambitions. But I let my curiosity carry the conversation and we landed on a discussion about metaphorical relationships between mathematics and life. His remark about happiness being parabolic stuck with me. Sometimes happiness is low but you always know it will swing back up with equal force as a well-behaved parabolic function. Balance is inevitable. It is nonsensical to try to ride the peak of the function when life is pulling you down. You have to ride it like a wave and trust that the trough will soon be a peak. This comment foreshadowed my first days of travel. There were many low points, but all have been matched with equally high points.