23 October 2007

We have been training for the past two weeks in Welisso, a mid-sized town outside of Addis which will serve as our base for ten weeks of community-based pre-service training. We began the first day with a crash course in "survival Amharic," including such useful phrases as,"Where is the bathroom?" and, "I am full" (i.e. please stop your incessant efforts to force more food upon me). Then came the hilariously awkward and dramatic process of matching each of the 42 of us with our Ethiopian host families. The families sat crowded together in a covered pavilion as we were shuffled en masse in front of them. Each family representative, one by one, would come to the front of the pavilion, just at the top of the stairs leading down to the flock of waiting "farenji" (foreigners), and present to our training director the piece of paper that served as his or her PeaceCorps Volunteer claim ticket. The director would pause dramatically for effect before reading out the printed name, and the lucky volunteer would emerge from the crowd to thunderous applause. Newly adopted PCV and claimant Welissoan would meet at the foot of the stairs, embrace and exchange a seemingly ever-increasing number of cheek-kisses, and walk arm-in-arm down the aisle created by the parting of the crowd, eager to begin a beautiful new life together. It was a bizarre combination of game show, dog show, wedding, and adopt-a-thon, and the overall effect was incredibly amusing.

My host family consists of a grandmother, her 25-year-old daughter, her sister's 12-year-old son, and another sister's four-year-old daughter. They have been absolutely incredible to me; I honestly could not have asked for better. They took me in as a stranger and have loved me with an intensity that is demonstrated every single day in word and action.

The grandmother, my host mama, is a Protestant missionary. I am not sure what this means practically – except that, as she says, she was too old to and physically worn down to continue her former job making injera for a local hotel, and, as I surmise, she is almost entirely supported by money sent back from family living in the U.S. Her story becomes more complex and intriguing with every new discovery my improving Amharic allows me to make. She married in her twenties and had one child, my host sister Rebkah. Shortly afterward, her husband became Muslim, and she converted along with him. During that time, though, she gave birth to two sons who both died in infancy, and she became convinced that God was punishing her for a sort of unfaithfulness to Him. She divorced her husband and rejoined the Christian church, leaving herself largely without financial means. Her parents died very early in her life, and her two brothers died later in a motor vehicle accident, leaving only her and her sisters –one of whom is living in the States, and one of whom left Ethiopia to find work as a housemaid in "an Arab country" (the specific name of which my mama has forgotten). At one point in her missionary career, my mama spent time living with a host family in Germany, which I think helps her in understanding and being sensitive to my needs. She thanks God for everything, and she believes that He sent me to her as an answer to her prayers. I suppose this should make me feel special, but most of the time I just feel unworthy to be so considered. She loves me, though, undoubtedly.

Rebkah has also been incredible to me, constantly giving and serving. I love making her laugh – which is not difficult as a goofy and rather uninhibited American who speaks Amharic on the level of a two-year-old (and a rather slow one at that). My little host sister, Hannah, is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever seen, and she adores me in that unquestioning way that only children are capable of. She has also become quite a ham, largely, I have observed, as a result of competing for attention with her comical brother. Malik has become my favorite in many ways. (Maybe it's some sort of "brother I never had" syndrome?) In addition to being outgoing and full of hysterical, off-the-wall antics, he is generous, kind, and caring. He is a bright student and a diligent son. His father died when he was younger, and it is obvious that he tries his hardest to fill that role of man of the house. My heart really goes out to him because as a twelve-year-old boy living in a household of females, I think he is absolutely desperate for someone to play with, for the chance to just be a little boy. I think I would do just about anything to make him happy. One evening, walking home from the local tourist lodge where we had spent the day watching English Premier League soccer and drinking Mirindas, he said to me, "Today – very,very, very good." I think I could have ended my Peace Corps service right then and been satisfied with having done good in the world.

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