Thursday, April 15, 2010
Ashenafe and family
Keegan’s Birthday is in August; Anne was born in December. So when we went to a Birthday Party in November, we were positive the party was not for us. We were told the party was for Ashenafe’s (Who is that? Read the last post!) three year old nephew.
To get to the party, we drove our rented Toyota Rav-4 through essentially a squatter’s village. As we drove slowly past tin and wooden shacks, kids on the path—road is the wrong word—yelled in astonishment: “Mechina! Mechina!” (Car! Car!) I imagine they hadn’t seen many cars on the road before.
Ashenafe’s aunt and her family live in a small shack with mud-brick walls and a tin roof. The house has one room about 10 by 10 feet, enough room for one single bed, a small shelf, and two chairs. Three people live in this small space, sharing one bed. They are lucky, though, compared to the many who live on the streets or in far worse homes.
We sat in the two chairs, Ashenafe on the floor beside us, and the family on the bed. The bulk of the party had been earlier—they showed us pictures of the large pan of bread that was the cake, the number shaped candle, and several little boys piled up on the chairs. This section of the party was apparently for us. They gave us Cokes, salad, bread, injera and stew, popcorn, and an elaborate coffee ceremony. As we ate and they watched, meticulously keeping our plates full, we learned that nobody in the room outside of Ashenafe had a paying job.
We couldn’t talk much because they spoke little English. We used what Amharic we knew, played around with our camera together, and all watched Asher get paraded around the neighborhood. When I got paranoid and went outside to check on the car, little children were simply playing around it, looking at it like a spaceship. Towards the end of the party, our party, we were offered a taste of Tella, a homemade barley beer. It tasted like cigarette butts ground up in water, left in the rain for months to thicken and ferment. They laughed at our faces when we sipped. Despite the taste, the offering and generosity was an honor.
As we drank and stuffed ourselves, we were overcome by the generosity of those who have so little giving to us with so much. The generosity of the poor is a common theme in Ethiopia and all over the world. Ashenafe and Tsehei, for example, consistently give money to the poor and the church. The food and drinks this family gave us dwarfed the tiny gift we brought with us: a small bag of oranges and bananas. Every time we go to an Ethiopian’s house for dinner or a holiday, the party always seems to be about us.
The mud-brick walls of the room were covered in old newspapers from Dubai. Sitting in one of the worn chairs, I was struck by an advertisement in one of the newspapers: “2 bedroom apartment, 26th floor, ocean view, minutes from the beech, $3000/month”. Would the owner of that apartment invite us in? Give us the only two chairs? Give us special food and drinks that they could not realistically afford? Would we find the same selflessness and warmth in that shiny apartment as we found in this 10X10 little room?
Sunday, March 14, 2010
We are officially horrible bloggers. Now that several months have passed, we decided it is high time we return to our blog. Much has happened in the past few months. Most of you by now know we’ll be leaving at the end of the school year. In August we’ll be moving to Xiamen, China. Yes, big changes; we spent most of the past few months going through that process. While we’re excited to go to China, we are sad to leave Ethiopia. We do want to share what a wonderful time we have had and how incredible the people of Ethiopia are. So, we plan to renew our focus on this blog. We hope! We’ll start by telling you about the person in Ethiopia we know the most.
Ashenafe is both our brother and our son. A 16 year old boy that has lived with us since October, Ashenafe is officially our guard, house cleaner, Asher’s nanny, personal shopper, gardener, bill payer, and negotiator. But in reality he is our friend, brother, son, and what we now see as our biggest impact in Ethiopia.
We first met Ashenafe in September 2008. When we walked from home to school, we would always see Ashenafe on the streets. It is very common for poor or homeless Ethiopians to ask any foreigner for money. Ashenafe was essentially homeless—his mother in the countryside could not provide for him, so they sent him to Addis to find his uncle. While he did find his uncle and stayed with him, he often spent nights on the street. But Ashenafe was different right away. He never asked for anything. Instead, he would do odd jobs to earn money. He shined shoes, carried bags, slaughtered sheep, sold dogs, washed cars, and even tried to sell Keegan a monkey. When I (Keegan) needed my shoes shined, I would wait until I saw Ashenafe, and we would practice my little Amharic and his English while he shined. A relationship began to grow.
Soon we invited Ashenafe to eat dinner with us. He ate pasta as if he was completely famished! We learned about his family, his father who died as a soldier, and what his life was like. Though he was lucky to earn 100 birr a month, he saved his money to pay for his own night school. We quickly realized how honest, mature, and wise Ashenafe was for his age and situation. We offered to help—“What do you need?” we asked. We left the question open to about anything. “A pair of shoes and a pair of pants” was his reply. When I think of myself in Ashenafe’s situation, what would I ask for? Money? A job? A ticket to America? I doubt I would stop at shoes and pants.
We bought Ashenafe a new outfit—shoes, pants, a shirt—and he soon got a stable job working at a restaurant. Our relationship continued to grow. When Asher was born, Ashenafe brought flowers that were nicer than those brought by all of our other friends, including an engineer and a doctor. How much of his monthly salary did he use? When we came back to Addis in September, we quickly got back in touch. We soon found out that Ashenafe had to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. He was unable to go to school anymore. When we couldn’t rehire Teshei (our house-helper/nanny we loved last year), Ashenafe made a proposal: he would work for us, live with us, and do whatever we needed. And, above all, he would love Asher like a big brother.
So here we are, parenting both an 8 month old and a 16 year old. In ways, Ashenafe is incredibly mature for his age—he has learned from living in the streets, being more or less abandoned, surviving on his own. But he is still 16. He has no idea how to budget, how to do things quietly (We nicknamed him Atto Chachata—Mr. Loud), and how to time manage. Yet we are so blessed by Ashenafe! We joke with him, laugh together, play games together, and love having him as a part of our family. And he certainly is Asher’s wondam (brother)—Asher lights up when Ashenafe is around. Ashenafe was Asher’s first babysitter, and he will be very hard to top!
We hope that we have blessed Ashenafe. He is rapidly learning English, goes to night school and driving school, and is learning other skills. He knows he is loved and provided for as a brother, not as an employee. But we know that we have been far more blessed by him—in our relationship, the perspective he has taught us, and by making life in Ethiopia wonderful.
In July, we’ll be leaving Ethiopia. Ashenafe will remain. What will become of him? We’re working hard to find him a new job, a home, a family that can love him like we have—and that will love like he has loved us! But even as we live in China or wherever life takes us, Ashenafe will remain an important part of our life. In our minds, Ashenafe is not so different from all Ethiopians. He represents the best in Ethiopia—kindness, selflessness, generosity, love, humor, and faith.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Here's a riddle for you: How many men does it take to change a flat tire? The Answer? I have no idea; it was too dark to count them. It was Ethipian New Years, September 11, Ethiopia's most celebrated and exciting holiday. To celebrate, I had gotten out of town a bit in my borrowed car. While on the way back to town that evening, I found a spot overlooking the countryside and valleys. It was already dusk, so I decided to watch the sunset and found a spot to pull off the road.
In Addis Ababa you see many foreigners. But you don't see many foreigners sitting beside a road outside of the city. The people walking by me thought I was a bit of a novelty, so I got to have several small conversations. Just as the sun was close to setting, a large group of boys approached me and began to talk. One spoke decent English, and I used the little Amharic I knew. We talked about the usual things--the US, what we're doing in Ethiopia, the holiday, and even sports. The group was probably 8 boys, all around 18 years old. We were enjoying our conversation so much that I didn't mind too much when a cloud blocked out the sun just before it set.
As it began to get dark, I decided I should get back into the city. We all shook hands, and they invited me to come back the next day for lunch. As I walked to the car, I noticed a completely flat tire. Flat tires are very common here. I've heard many stories of people going on a one hour drive and getting three flat tires. In our four months of driving, we've gotten four flat tires. Like every other time we've gotten a flat tire, other people have jumped to help us. So the group of boys quickly began helping me with the tire. I shouldn't say helping me---they wouldn't let me do anything! I got out the jack, and after a few minutes of cranking they said the jack wouldn't work; it was too old and rusted. They found a large, flat rock, put the jack on top, and tried again. Still no success. After a few more tries, one of the boys ran down the street and borrowed a jack from another car. Of course, the occupants of this second car all came and helped...in their holiday dress clothes!
This second jack worked, but was too small and didn't raise the car up enough. Back to the large rock, which they again placed under the jack. More cranking, more crawling around on the dirt, more yells for the light (one cell phone light was all we had), and finally the car had four good tires. By the time it was done, the sun was down completely and an hour had passed. I had done virtually nothing, other than stand around hoping the jack wouldn't fail and crush someone.
In Ethiopia when a foreigner has a problem, it's common for people to flock to the scene to help. Many want to be paid for their work, even if they just stood around watching. But this group of boys was different. They asked for nothing and simply wanted to help out their new friend. Just like these boys, most Ethiopians are exceedingly friendly and helpful. They will do all they can to help one another or even a complete stranger. While I gave them money to buy dinner together, they would have been perfectly happy receiving a simple thank you and wave as I drove back down the mountain. So how many men does it take to change a flat tire? In Ethiopia, it often takes a village!
Monday, October 5, 2009
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
When we were preparing to come to Africa, one of the biggest unknowns
was having a house helper. While we knew that having house help is
common throughout much of Africa, we weren’t sure how comfortable we
were with the idea. We wondered: would she live with us? Would we
have privacy? How do we be friends and bosses at the same time?
After seven months we’ve adjusted just fine and would even like to see
some aspects added to the American culture!
Our “house-helper” is named Tsehei. She is 28 years old and lives
with us in our compound. Tsehei is from rural Ethiopia and is
incredibly devoted to the Orthodox Christian Church. Tsehei has been
one of the greatest blessings to us in Ethiopia. She does far more
than we expected and for that we are so grateful. Like all house help
she keeps our house and compound clean, does our laundry (washes by
hand, hangs them to dry, and irons), and does our dishes. She also
cooks our breakfast and reheats our dinners. In addition to these
normal tasks, she helps us as foreigners with ever day life. She
speaks very good English, so she is always able to answer our
questions, give us directions, tell us about culture, and even helps
keep us in line! She takes us to Merkato, a huge and intimidating
open-air market where we would be overwhelmed without her, and
negotiates prices for us. She translates for us when we try to talk
with people in the neighborhood. And when we do mismanage our
shopping and forget something, Tsehei often fills in and buys the
items we’re missing. She gives us advice about the best places to
shop, hospitals, places to avoid, and any other information we need to
know. She does all this in addition to her everyday tasks. In
Africa, keeping up on the household duties is a full time job because
things need to be cleaned everyday; laundry is an all day event, etc.
Because these “ordinary” things take so much effort, everyone has a
house-helper, regardless of class. Our life here would be infinitely
more difficult without Tshei!
We feel that we’ve found a comfortable balance of friendship with
Tsehei. We’ll occasionally ask her to eat with us or go to an event.
We communicate freely about our days, how we are all feeling, and are
beginning to discuss deeper things like culture and church. She is
like an older sister in ways but the dynamics of being her “employer”
can make that awkward. Still the balance is challenging; we tend to
wonder if we are doing enough to be friendly as we value her so much.
We try to balance loving and treating her as family with the “work”
In addition to Tsehei, we also have a cook during the day, Monday
through Saturday. For us the food situation in Ethiopia has been more
challenging than we expected. Shopping takes lots of time - there is
no Wal-Mart! – and we have to pick up a few items each day, often
going to multiple stores on our walk home. Everything is made fresh
and from scratch (there are no processed foods or frozen meals here!).
So every meal takes time, creativity, and planning! Doing just the
planning and shopping can take an entire Saturday, and we don’t even
cook it! So that is why we are thankful for Aberash. We don’t have
enough hours in the day to plan, buy, prepare and cook ourselves.
While Aberash has many specialties that we love (cinnamon rolls,
lasagna, and pizza!), we’ve learned that Ethiopians view food
differently than Americans. As Americans we want variety; most
Ethiopians eat virtually the same food three times a day. Most locals
have their house helpers also do all the cooking. However, because we
are foreigners and have more “unique” meals that take additional work
and preparation, a separate cook is needed. Whether it’s her age or
her home cooking, Aberash is close to being our Ethiopian Grandma.
While having a house helper and cook sounds extravagant, it’s no
different than having a microwave, washing machine, dishwasher, and
constant Wal-Mart access. We recognize the cultural norm and that
life without Tsehei and Aberash would be unbelievably challenging. We
are blessed continually by them. We try to be a blessing to them in