Tag Archives: Eritrea

Meditation on a Bed Net

My last night in Ethiopia.  I woke several times to hear the rat scurrying around under my bed, but I no longer reacted.  If it was going to attack me, it would have done so by now, so I just let him/her scurry.

I gazed up through the bed net, at the window and door which were silhouetted by flood lights.

This trip had made me realize that I (probably) did not want to live and work in a developing country.  I say “probably” because I don’t believe in saying no, full stop.

I had lived and worked or studied in Mexico and Kenya and Jordan/Israel/Palestine for periods of up to two months.  I have applied for and interviewed for many international development jobs. I always thought—if I could just work in a place like Iraq or South Sudan for six months—I could get other jobs anywhere.  I was the finalist for a job in Ingushetia. I know, I had never heard of it either.  Due to security considerations I withdrew before they could make a formal offer.  I was offered a job in rural Rwanda.  I turned it down because I am a city person and I thought I would go crazy with boredom.

I accepted, and had my flight booked, to take a two-year volunteer job with CUSO-VSO, the Canadian version of the Peace Corps.  They were going to send me to Kolkata, India to work with disabled slum women.  Their philosophy (and budget) dictated that I would have the same living standard as the people we worked with, so I would have lived in a cement room with no air con.  I remember telling this to a guy I met who was from Calcutta.  He looked at me like I was insane.  “Do you know what 40 feels like?” That’s 104 Fahrenheit.

I think I could have done these jobs, but that doesn’t mean I should have taken them.  My fear was that I would not be able to hack the heat, the rats, the noise, the boredom, or the overwhelming needs and hopelessness.  I’ve always had a drive to reduce suffering and contribute to making the world a better place.  I also have a desire for air conditioning and rat-free accommodations.

My colleagues and I in the US and UK have been talking a lot about the trend among NGOs to move their offices to the global south and employ people from the country of operations rather than importing people from the US, UK, Australia, and other western countries.

It’s been a trend for 10 years, but Oxfam and other organizations are really stepping up their efforts toward this shift.  The donors, like the US Agency for International Development, are also prioritizing local organizations for funding over international ones based in the US and Europe.  Soon, gone will be the days when an Italian or Dutch logistician or finance person will be hired to work in Bangkok or Amman and get perks like a house and driver and “hardship” allowance, while his or her local counterpart gets a regular salary and benefits.

At the same time, universities in the US and Europe have developed new degree programs like Global Studies and graduate degrees in International Development. I wish I could have earned one these degrees years ago when I was starting out, because I’ve pretty much had to learn everything on the job and I often didn’t know what I didn’t know.  Now these programs are churning out thousands of idealistic, ambitious young people who want to work “abroad,” just as NGO hiring preferences are shifting away from them.

Morning.  I hugged my colleagues good-bye and hopped in a Landcruiser for the ride back to Addis and my flight to London.  The airport would be the scariest part of my trip.

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.

 

 

Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Scenes from a Refugee Camp

I spent two days in the refugee camps.  On the first day I got a walking tour of the camp from the young colleague who had shown such great interest in tiramisu.  He walked at a brisk pace and I managed to keep up despite the ground being muddy and strewn with large rocks and pocked with water-filled potholes.

We stopped in at the Women’s Centre which was run by International Rescue Committee.  We visited a primary school, where little faces looked up at me briefly and then back to their books.  They were probably used to strangers touring the camps. We walked past the playground:

It may look sad, but when you turned around there was this spectacular view of the mountains:

My colleague asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee and I responded enthusiastically.  People had set up small businesses along the main road; some sold beer, some packets of crisps and nuts or single application shampoo packets.  There was a cigarette vendor who sold one cigarette at a time, since no one could afford a whole pack.  We stepped into a thatched hut that served coffee.  I was the only woman and I got a few looks—not hostile or lewd—they just seemed to be noting, “Huh, a woman in the coffee hut.”  Knowing how hard women here worked, I wondered if there was a separate women’s coffee hut somewhere or if they managed without coffee.  Just the thought makes me tired.

We sat on the ubiquitous white plastic chairs, drank bittersweet coffee, and chewed on some kind of beans or nuts.  My colleague’s English was difficult to understand, so as I chewed I wondered if I would soon be seeing flying unicorns.  He talked about being an artist and a project he was working on.  I could croak out a few syllables now, but I didn’t want to be mute while traveling back to Europe in a few days so I mostly just nodded and smiled.

We returned to the CVT area.  There, we have built tukuls that serve as cool, calm oases in which people attend counseling groups.  We’ve got an art therapist from Chicago who is leading the painting of tukuls for children and creating mandalas on others.

We arrived at break time, so there was more coffee and popcorn with the whole staff of about 10 people.  They insisted I sit on the one (white plastic) chair while they stood or squatted on the ground.  I had been warned about this by others from headquarters who visited—that our staff will insist on visitors taking the chair and that it would be embarrassing.  I had just had an hour-long hike around the camp under a blazing sun.  I was twice as old as all of them.  Age is revered in some cultures and if my age or perceived status as a visitor got me the chair, I wasn’t going to say no.

After the break I was taken to a tukul where a group of 12-14 year old boys was assembled for a counseling session.  CVT’s standard counseling groups run for 10-weeks.  However, if you’ve ever had a teenaged boy in your life you know how restless they can be.  These Eritrean teenagers had picked up and walked out of their country.  They did not enjoy hanging around a refugee camp with no prospects.  As I’ve written briefly about before, many of them walk off again, toward the Sinai Desert in hopes of reaching Israel, or farther on toward Libya and the Mediterranean Sea with hopes of reaching Europe.  Some do make it, but most are kidnapped in the Sinai by Bedouin or other traffickers, or drown in the Med.

Ten-week groups are just too long—many of the boys won’t be around by the third week.  So CVT developed a three-meeting group model, and I was sitting in on the third one.  Everyone had a chair.  But first, they made me stand up and give a speech, since I was such an important person from headquarters.  Now this was a little uncomfortable.  Little did they know that I am nobody special, but I rasped out a few words anyway.

Losing My Voice

The day I was supposed to give the second half of my presentation, I awoke with no voice.  I couldn’t force out even one husky syllable.  I don’t know if I had a cold, or if it was all the smoke and chemicals, or both.  regardless, this was going to be awkward.

I wrote, “I Have Laryngitis” on a piece of paper.  Then I thought no, they might not know what that was, so I wrote another that said, “I Have Lost my Voice.”  Then I thought dang, we are always talking about giving refugees a voice to speak up for their rights.  What if they think I am making some kind of bizarre white western yuppie artistic statement?

People did give me strange looks when I showed them my sign, but what else could I do?  I slid a note over the breakfast table to Maki: “I can’t give a presentation with no voice.”  She nodded and shrugged.  Did she think I was faking it to get out of doing the second half because I had worried the first one hadn’t gone over well?

“You can go with Yonas to get your camp pass this morning,” she said.  Yonas, not his real name, is our loggie.  “Loggie” is shorthand for logistician.  I nodded and followed Yonas to the truck.

The power and the generator were both off, so the wireless router was going “BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP …” You get the picture.  It was loud and annoying and no one else seemed to notice it.

I had planned to force out some words but didn’t think I could make myself heard above the beeping.  I showed Yonas my note about having no voice and he smiled, nodded, and proceeded to talk to me very loudly.  Ethiopians are normally soft spoken.  I assumed he was trying to be heard over the beeping but he kept it up after we’d left the compound.  I’ve noticed this the other times I’ve had laryngitis; for some reason people seem to think you are hard of hearing.

We went into two camps and called on the administrators with the agency that manages them.  They don’t let just anyone into the camps, for good reason.  Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation because they tend to be desperate for solutions to their uncertain plight.

In each office, Yonas and I sat across from the official and the two of them made small talk.  Yonas did all the talking.  I smiled and nodded deferentially to everything.  Yonas explained how I was a CVT employee who was here to observe the programs, that I had come from the US, that I was a fundraiser  who was here for a week.  The official would nod slowly at each statement and then there would be a very long pause as he or she scrutinized the forms Yonas had submitted weeks earlier.  They appeared to relish the power of being able to keep you in suspense as to whether they would grant the pass or not.  Finally, just when I was sure they would stamp “REJECTED” on my pass, they stamped “APPROVED” and that was that.

If I make it sound like Ethiopia was dreadful, that’s not my intention.  So I had a sore throat and lost my voice.  So what?  The thousands of refugees in these camps had lost their homes, their families, their peace of mind, and their hope.  I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience where we work and what we do first hand.

I can’t and wouldn’t show photos of refugees.  You know, there’s that whole thing about treating people like they’re animals in a zoo.  And the thought of posting photos of people online—people who have no Internet access and so will never even know their photo is out there—feels wrong.

Here’s some CVT signage.  It may look depressing but it’s hard to keep it looking good with the mud and rain.  The good news is that CVT has planted a lot of trees, which makes our corner of the camps welcoming, and the fencing is to protect them from goats.  The illustrations are “before” and “after” counseling.

Where There’s Smoke

I got a common cold in Ethiopia. Coincidentally, in my current location, Scotland, I became violently ill which prevented me from blogging for a couple days.  So if you’re worried about getting sick when you travel, don’t go anywhere.

It was the day I would give my training about proposal writing.  I awoke with a scratchy throat.  Was it due to all the chemicals sprayed around my room?  My bed was draped with a bed net to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes—was it drenched in the insecticide permethrin?

At breakfast, as usual, all eyes were glued to the big screen TV hanging in a corner.  Germany’s Angela Merkel was being congratulated by Dilma Roussef of Brazil and “World Cup Winner—Germany” was scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

I know next to nothing about sports, but I turned to Maki and said, “That’s strange.  Is the World Cup every year?”

“No,” she said, although she didn’t seem very sure either.  I looked around and all the guys were glued to the screen and didn’t seem to think anything was amiss.

Then, the words “2014 Winners!” scrolled across the screen.  Maki laughed her dry laugh.  “They’re showing 2014—I wonder how many times the staff has watched this.  This is what they call cable TV here.”

She asked someone to change the channel and he flipped it to the other staff favorite, America’s Stupidest Home Videos.

“Keep going,” Maki ordered, and the canteen fell silent because the next channel was live BBC news coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire.

I was the after-lunch-world-disaster-news speaker.  The staff filtered into the training room.  Maki sat in the back working and listening with one ear.

I had a circle of about 20 attendees and since the power was out and I hadn’t been able to print my handouts, I handed my laptop around to try to paint a picture of the global fund raising scene: who is the largest donor to international development in terms of total dollars (the US, by far) and by percentage of Gross Domestic Product (the UK and Scandinavian countries, by far); what kind of programming gets the most support (health, water and sanitation, agriculture, and increasingly, counter terrorism activities); who receives the most funding (giant nongovernmental organizations and corporations) and where (the Middle East is a priority right now).

I looked around and saw inscrutable faces.  They were making eye contact with me.  They weren’t sneaking peeks at their phones.  They weren’t yawning.  But they weren’t nodding or smiling or sitting forward eagerly.

The generator kicked on and I had to raise my voice to make myself heard.  My throat got scratchier and scratchier.  I had been provided with a two-liter bottle of water and I kept trying to sneak sips while talking, which was awkward.

Suddenly the cook appeared with a smoking pot of burnt coffee beans.  She walked around and the staff waved their hands over the smoke and took a deep inhale.  Everyone seemed to think this was great, so I followed their lead.  Ugh.

The hour was soon over.  No one asked any questions.  I hadn’t expected them to applaud, but it was kind of a flat ending.

“Were they bored?” I asked Maki.  “Was it too much, too basic …?”

“That’s normal,” she said.  “The staff just aren’t expressive in meetings like that.  I thought it went fine.”

That was good enough for me.  However, an hour of talking had strained my throat to the point where I now sounded like I’d smoked hundreds of cigarettes.  Which I kind of had, if you consider all the diesel fumes and toxic roach- and rat-killing chemicals and dust and coffee bean smoke I’d inhaled over the past few days.

My throat is kind of my Achilles heel, so to speak.  The previous winter I had had total laryngitis for 11 days.  I retreated to my room to avoid having to talk, but eventually had to emerge for dinner.  People were getting to know me now, and wanted to talk.  When I opened my mouth and croaked they looked puzzled—is laryngitis not a thing in Ethiopia?  Did they think I was talking this way on purpose?

Feelings on a Stick

Day two of my work week in Ethiopia.  I was sitting in on the second day of a training for our staff.  It was interesting enough, but as I wrote it all had to be interpreted into Tigrinya, and the Eritrean staff’s questions had to be interpreted into English, then the answers back into Tigrinya, and on and on.  I was super impressed by our interpreter, who must have been exhausted by the end of the day.  He started every interpretation with a word that sounded like “selezzie,” which I assumed must mean, “he says.”  I also noticed there were certain words that must not have a Tigrinyan word because they jumped out at me in English when he was speaking Tigrinya.  I could understand why “name tag” and “photo copy” might not have a Tigrinyan translation, but “silence” or “responsibilities?”

We worked our way through the manual that counsellors would use to run the groups.  One exercise involved everyone drawing a face on a circle of white paper on a stick to show how he/she was feeling.  You can’t see the faces because everyone except one counsellor drew them very, very small.  Well, and because the iphone takes crappy photos in low light.  It was like the faces drawn by the counsellors were floating inside big white balloons.  When it was my turn to show my face, everyone laughed because it fit the white circle.  I will never know what that was about.

During one of the longer interpretations, my mind started to drift.  I was tired due to living through The Night of the Rat.  I began to do what I usually do in meetings to keep myself looking engaged; I counted how many men there were, then how many women, and calculated the percent that were women.  Then I looked around and guessed how old each person was.  Back home, I would normally calculate what percent of the group were overweight, had blue eyes, or were gay, but in Ethiopia those were non-existent or hidden attributes.

I looked down at my feet as though I was concentrating closely on what was being said and thought, “Dang, I need a pedicure.  I wonder if I’ll have time to give myself one later, or should work on my presentation more, or take a nap ….”

I had been asked at the last minute to train our staff in Ethiopia on proposal writing.  I would have one the one-hour after-lunch slots on Wednesday and Thursday.

This was a great opportunity but also a tall order because I felt I couldn’t train people on how to write proposals without backing up and explaining things like, how do you find donors to apply to?  Who gives away the most money? How do you choose among many different funding opportunities?  What kind of skills to you need to raise funds?  And so on.

I had created an outline offline, then spent hours trying to email it to Maki so she could review it.  I considered loading it onto a flash drive, printing it out, or just handing her my laptop before I finally got an internet connection.  We wasted so much time trying, and trying again and again to get a connection.

During our morning break, I finally got to offload the sweets I had brought all the way from Holland and Austria.  I had stroopwaffle and tiramisu cake and a strudel, all hermetically sealed in plastic and probably loaded with preservatives because they were none the worse for wear except for being a little smashed.

The cook cut them up into small pieces and they were circulated with the popcorn and coffee.  Everyone seemed to enjoy this treats, and one of the youngest counsellors came over and asked me what the tiramisu was.  When I told him, and said it was Italian, he looked at me skeptically.  “I thought I knew all the Italian words for foods,” he said.  “Lasagna, spaghetti, linguine,” he rattled off his Italian food vocabulary.  “Teer-ah-mee-soo,” he repeated a few times to himself, then wandered away to find more.