Selam nachu! (Amharic for: Peace to you all)

Greetings family, friends, and good people of the world. I am writing you today from Jimma, Ethiopia. It has been almost two weeks since our journey began in Chicago and so much has happened since our orientation June 26-28. For the sake of time and space, I will try to paint the most descriptive picture I can of our experiences here and limit myself to two pages on Microsoft Word. To begin, here is some basic information about the country of Ethiopia and the nature of the program I am here with (Vincentian Lay Missionaries).

Ethiopia is one of the biggest countries on the African continent, located in the east next to Sudan. It is also one of the poorest (last I checked, ranked as the 11th poorest country in the world). Development here is sporadic. They have a lot of industry the capital (Addis Ababa) but also tragic urban poverty there. The unemployment rate fluctuates often, but it is not uncommon for it to be over 70%. There top exports are coffee (it is known as the “birthplace of coffee”) and chat, which is an illegal drug in the USA (stimulant). Currently, like in most places in our world, there is severe inflation. The price of teft, the grain used to make the staple food here, has risen from 400 birr to 1100 birr/whatever the amount they measure in. Thus, the people are very hungry, especially those with nothing already.

There is a strong Ethiopian Orthodox Church that has been here since the 4th century (also some Muslims, Catholics, and other Christians – there were Jews but most of them have gone to Israel). Also, it was one of the few African countries that has never been colonized, hence the lack of ties to any European languages, AND some say, their struggles in development. However, it also makes for a very proud and strong culture. They work on a different calendar, the Ethiopian (or Juilian calendar), which consists of 12 30-day months and 1 6-day month to celebrate the beginning of a new year/dry season. Thus, they celebrated their Millennium last September 11 (2007).

Education here is inconsistent. Only in the past few decades were women ALLOWED to go to school. Today, education is operated regionally, and being the poor country that it is, this does not bode well for regions without many resources. Anyway, education is a right, but is not granted to all. Further, many students don’t go or don’t finish because they have to work to support their family’s survival. Recently, the government decided that secondary and higher education should be conducted in English. Thus, if students cannot speak English, they cannot go on in school. There are national exams to advance, and they cannot be retaken without retaking a grade. Sadly, part of these exams is in English. Some regions have only a few English speakers…Thus, this is largely, in my opinion, a way to keep the social divides in place.

Thus came the VLM program. We are here to teach English and work with the teachers to help them instruct during the school year. As missionaries, we are teachers by trade, but our program believes that we are doing the work we are called to do by being Christians. However, unless you have done the program or a similar one, to really understand what we are doing and why we are doing it can be a challenge.

Being my second time in Ethiopia, things are a bit different. I am in the southwest part of the country this year versus the north last year. There are 13 regions in the country, and many of them have their own cultures and even more within those (languages, religions, etc.). The landscape here is beautiful. I still can’t get over how GREEN it is here, but I know the changes outside the rainy season.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a few stories of the PEOPLE since I believe those are more powerful and help others understand the reality here. First, the kids.

There are two communities here that we are working with, Tulema and Gingo, in which live families that have been affected by leprosy. There are only a handful (less than 10) active cases of leprosy around, but if a relative has leprosy, the whole family is condemned. In the past few decades, these communities were established but before that, many of them lived without homes and made a home out of the nearby cemeteries. Thus, literally, they were known as the “living dead.” The Daughters of Charity here in Jimma have dedicated a lot of their work to these communities. They have established kindergartens for the children and are working on expanding the schools. Many of them are orphans, and you wouldn’t believe how starved for affection they are. They should when we walk by “Hello, Hello” or “You, You” and their eyes light up like they see heaven. Alicia (or Al, who is a Creighton alumnus and was here last year) could be elected as a representative around here. Everywhere we go we hear “Alicia, Alicia!” It truly is beautiful. Also, their eagerness to learn is unmatched. Thus, put a desire for affection and education together and you have the beautiful, lovable children of Tulema and Gingo. I am teaching grades 8 and 9 at the Catholic school – some kids of means, others only there because of sponsors. I’ll have more to say on this later, I just started teaching today.

Also, I forgot to mention, our community is great. There are 8 of us: 6 teachers, an education coordinator, and Abba Aidan. We have really gelled well and have already created priceless memories together. I am the lone male in the group other than Abba, a priest, so that makes for an interesting dynamic! Beyond that, it is just a group of amazing people with hearts of gold and they are a pleasure to be around.

I’ll close with the most powerful story of the experience thus far. It is hard to put it into words, despite the image in my mind still being lasting and powerful. But, I’ll try!

As you could probably guess, relations between males and females are not equal here. Like many undeveloped and underdeveloped (and, well, some developed) countries, women are second-class citizens here. They have limited rights and abuse is not uncommon. Thus, while the event we came across while walking last Friday was certainly shocking and unexpected, I have not yet concluded if it was a freak occurrence or a tragic reality that goes unnoticed. Al, Jenna, Rose, and I were walking back to the Sisters’ house in the late afternoon with some local kids. We had just explored a rock mound (I won’t say a mountain, but it was big) and had some amazing views of and Jimma and its surroundings: mountains, trees, monkeys, villages. On our way back, we laughed hysterically as we took the alternate route and soaked ourselves in muddy water and God knows what else. Anyway, just a few minutes before we got home, I looked up, with my hands clutched in the grip of two young kids, and saw a young woman (younger than me) running and screaming toward us. Then, the next thing I new, a man caught up with her. Within ten feet of us, he grabbed her, struck her violently 3 or 4 times on her upper body before she fell to the ground and he proceeded to kick her several more times. It all happened within about 10 seconds (though it felt like days), and when it was all said and done, she was laying at my feet seemingly unconscious. The man walked away aggressively with a “strut” I will not forget.

After a half hour or so, we left the scene as locals gathered around and provided care. We did what we could, but with a language barrier, what can you really do? She was not bleeding but was breathing. Perhaps she was in shock or had a concussion. We will not know, and I hope and pray she heals fully. And now, our (but for me, my) struggle: In a foreign country with other Americans, all women. Well informed about the gender inequality there. Strongly advised to be mindful of the culture without supporting it but knowing that there is only so much you can do and you must respect where they are. Then, suddenly, while high on the emotion of joy with little kids all around, a woman is beaten, violently, and I stood there and watched. I made a motion toward the violence, but then my mind said: You are not at home. Why? Why does this matter? A woman being beaten by a man is not acceptable anywhere, I think, but yet I do not act…What kind of man am I? I ask. What kind of human am I?

I struggled, and we struggled, over these questions and still do. When it all registered we realized it all happened very fast, and really, with all the kids around us, I’d have been lucky to even get to the man by the time the violence was finished. I know I can’t change the past, and I/we was/were comforted by the others including the Sisters and priest here. Still, questions linger.

We are not here to change the culture, but we are here to show a positive example of how women and men interact in ours. Perhaps the children will admire how the females teachers and I interact (we have women leaders). Abba Aidan is intentional about allowing the women to participate fully and lead when we celebrate mass together. We are showing a good example of equality. However, the question that stays with me is this: What will the children remember AND what do they see more often: American women and men interacting positively and on an equal basis OR things like we saw in the street that day: dominance, violence, fear, and pain? This event was a healthy reminder on Independence Day how lucky we are to have been born in the USA, a luxury that cannot be measured on so many scales.

I hate to end on a downer, but that is what has stood out so far. I hope this has provided you with some sort of visual of where we are and what we are doing. It is a great big world out here, but very small at the same time. Last night we had Sisters in Ethiopia doing the “Cha-Cha Slide” and dancing to “Bootilicious” (don’t ask me)! I am sure there is more where that came from. As well as more e-mails to come. Stay tuned, and thank you for listening.

I hope all is well in the States or wherever you may be. Happy belated Independence Day! Exabier yistaligne (Amharic for God be with you).